Newly appointed Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman attempted to assuage a jittery international community on Monday night when he pledged allegiance to a two-state solution.
Under the glaring lime-light, he told reporters that he fully supported Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s vision for peace.
“I absolutely agree with every word, including two states for two peoples,” said Liberman, who heads the Yisrael Beytenu party.
His words generated immediate headlines in the Israeli press who consider him to be a hawk, and with good reason.
The new defense minister has a long history of opposing peace plans.
Liberman quit the Likud party in 1998 over its support for the Oslo Accords. He left the Ariel Sharon led government in 2004 to protest the pending Gaza withdrawal. Again, in 2008, he walked away from the Ehud Olmert led coalition in anger over the US-backed Annapolis peace process.
He coupled that grandstanding with outrageous sounding statements over the years about wanting to bomb Ramallah and the Aswan Dam in Egypt as well as calls for drowning Palestinian prisoners in the Dead Sea.
As for Gaza, he has called on Israel multiple times to re-occupy it.
His presence in the defense ministry has therefore alarmed a number of Western allies who worry that it is the death knell for any renewed peace process between Israelis and Palestinians.
US State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner did not mention Liberman by name but alluded to him, when he said Netanyahu’s new coalition might be “the most right-wing government in Israel’s history.”
But the Jekyll and Hyde politician didn’t make it to the defense ministry simply because he was a willing coalition partners for Netanyahu. He arrived there through a deliberate process of rebranding.
Liberman earned his reputation as a hawk and staunch right-winger because of his hardline attitude toward the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and Israeli-Arabs. He has had little patience with past frameworks for a peace deal.
But he is not among those right-wingers who oppose a Palestinian state. His concern is about the nature of that state and its potential borders.
Already by 2004, as part his transformation from a far-right politician to a more moderate statesman, he developed his own peace plan.
His initiative calls for a two-state solution that has little to do with the pre-1967 lines. Instead he wants to draw borders based on existing population centers, so that as many Jews as possible would be placed within Israel and the maximum amount of Palestinians would be within the boundaries of a Palestinian state. He has even stated that he would be willing to leave his home in the Nokdim settlement if it meant such a peace deal was possible.
By 2009, Liberman had endorsed Netanyahu’s Bar-Illan speech in which the prime minster spoke of two-states for two peoples. Liberman recalled his historical support for peace processes on Monday when he said,“I want to remind people that for many years Yisrael Beytenu decided, and I spoke more than once about recognizing, that same solution of two states for two peoples.”
More than that, Liberman said, as he explained that like Netanyahu he saw positive aspects to the 2002 Saudi Initiative.
That plan, also known as the Arab Peace Initiative, offers Israel normalized relations with the Arab world in exchange for a withdrawal the pre-1967 lines and solution for Palestinian refugees.
“I absolutely agree that the Arab [Peace] Initiative also has some very, very positive elements that enable a serious dialogue with all our neighbors in the region,” Liberman said.
He also thanked Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi for his call earlier this month on Israeli and Palestinians to take historic steps for peace.
“I think that President al-Sisi's speech was very important and has created a genuine opportunity. We must try to pick up the gauntlet,” he said.
It is not the first time he spoken in favor of the Arab Peace Initiative. He made similar remarks in a 2014 interview with The Jerusalem Post,
when he said it could be the basis for a regional comprehensive solution.
Back then, Arab League head Nabil el-Araby, rejected Liberman’s advance and said the only thing he was interested in was creating divisions between the Arab world and the rest of the world.
But that was then, before the Iran deal which the moderate Arab countries oppose and ISIS which they fear.
No one, of course, remembers that Liberman ever said that.
His same statement now, however, might not fall on deaf ears, in region where it might make sense to have a defense minister whose rhetoric is harsh but whose hand is open to peace.