Politics: Is Lieberman a David Levy?

Will FM be constantly bypassed or rise to the top?

By GIL STERN STERN HOFFMAN
July 2, 2010 16:15
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

lieberman imposing 311. (photo credit: AP)

 
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Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu owes his successful political career to former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, who helped him rise to prominence when he served as deputy foreign minister under David Levy in Shamir’s government.

Shamir constantly undermined Levy by running the country’s diplomatic policies on his own and using defense minister Moshe Arens, ambassador to the US Zalman Shoval and Netanyahu as his messengers to the world. The climax came in 1991 when Shamir took Netanyahu to the Madrid peace conference instead of Levy.

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Now Netanyahu is in charge and has acted similarly to Shamir. Avigdor Lieberman is his foreign minister. But when very serious issues have been at stake, the men conducting foreign policy have been Defense Minister Ehud Barak, President Shimon Peres, Ministers Moshe Ya’alon and Dan Meridor, Netanyahu’s advisers – and this week – Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer as well.

Ben-Eliezer’s meeting in Zurich with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, revealed on Channel 2 on Wednesday night, infuriated Lieberman, who was not in on the secret. He refused to take calls from Netanyahu and though he has no plans to remove his Israel Beiteinu party from the coalition, he made clear that its 15 MKs will no longer be Netanyahu’s loyal soldiers in the Knesset.

Sources close to Lieberman said on Thursday that Netanyahu can play the role of Shamir, but the prime minister cannot expect Lieberman to play the role of David Levy and turn the other cheek. Not only will Lieberman not accept the snub and move on, he will try to milk it for all it is worth and make sure that Netanyahu will regret it.

Lieberman already started to play the political game in an interview with Israel Radio Thursday morning. He criticized the decision to meet with Davutoglu not only because it was not deliberated on in the Foreign Ministry and the inner security cabinet but also because it came as the result of pressure from the White House.

The message behind Lieberman’s words was that Netanyahu has yet again capitulated to pressure from US President Barack Obama. In the days ahead, Lieberman will likely hammer home that message – that Netanyahu is a serial surrenderer: past, present and, most importantly, future.



That message is aimed at prospective voters in the next election, assuming that Lieberman makes it to the next race without an indictment (not a safe bet, but he is making it anyway). Lieberman and Netanyahu will face off against each other, competing for votes on the moderate right, where much of the population is today.

Another element in Lieberman’s efforts to take votes away from the Likud is his recent return to promoting Israel Beiteinu’s diplomatic plan that calls for exchanging populations and territories. In his first year as foreign minister, Lieberman parroted the government’s policies and left his party’s platform on the sidelines.

Last Thursday, he published the plan in The Jerusalem Post, because he wanted it to be taken seriously by the international community. If the world starts talking about the plan, Lieberman can make the case to voters that he can be a serious candidate for prime minister.

He also raised the plan to contrast himself with Netanyahu, who doesn’t have a plan of his own. It was important for Lieberman to keep his plan in the marketplace of ideas at a time of a diplomatic vacuum, especially before the prime minister’s July 6 meeting with Obama at the White House.

Obama promised Elie Wiesel (yet another Israeli shadow foreign minister?) that he would not try to force a plan on Israelis. But Lieberman is concerned that Netanyahu will fold to American pressure and accept Obama’s dictates.

Lieberman’s return to promote his plan also coincided with his fears that Obama would pressure Netanyahu to replace Israel Beiteinu in the coalition with Tzipi Livni’s Kadima.

This fear is mostly irrational, since Netanyahu detests Livni, but Lieberman is worried that there is no limit to Netanyahu’s ability to fold under intense pressure, especially from the US.

By involving himself in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Lieberman appears to be breaking a promise he made when he took over as foreign minister that he would stay out of a peace process that he does not believe in.

Lieberman allegedly made that promise against the advice of his prominent American strategists, Arthur Finkelstein and George Birnbaum.

It was reportedly made clear to him that as foreign minister, whatever the government did on the peace process would be attributed to him even if he tried to disassociate himself from it.

His behavior over the next few days will undoubtedly be interesting to watch, in part because Birnbaum is in town, fresh from Finkelstein’s and his clients’ unexpected victories in the elections in Hungary and Czechoslovakia.

The last time Birnbaum was in the country, surprising moves were made, apparently uncoincidentally, by his four best-known Israeli clients: Lieberman, Kadima leadership candidate Shaul Mofaz, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, and the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip.

In the past 10 days, Lieberman returned to promote his peace plan, Mofaz became chairman of the Knesset’s new Gilad Schalit caucus, Barkat embarrassed Netanyahu by pushing forward his plan to build a park in the Arab neighborhood of Silwan and the settlers announced plans for a new anti-Netanyahu campaign if he reneges on his promise to the end the construction moratorium in September.

Finkelstein and Birnbaum declined to comment, but the former is known for saying that the supernatural abilities of strategic advisers to influence history are often exaggerated.

Unlike the reputations of some politicians, most notably Netanyahu, Lieberman does not accept dictates from his strategists as gospel.

He is ferociously independent, unpredictable and constantly overrules his most trusted confidants.

He has risen politically against all odds and in spite of 14 years of criminal investigations against him. His next steps, Netanyahu’s and perhaps also those of the State Attorney’s Office could dictate whether Lieberman will be remembered as another David Levy, who was constantly bypassed and failed to leave his mark on the Foreign Ministry, or as another Netanyahu, who used the ministry as a stepping stone on the way to the top.

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