Analysis: Who can play nice with the US?

Perhaps in his new role Michael Oren could improve relations with the US during the last five months of the Obama administration.

August 8, 2016 04:52
3 minute read.
Israel US flags

Israel US flags. (photo credit: INGIMAGE)


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When Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman joined Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, Israel immediately faced an international backlash for forming what was billed as the most right-wing government in Israel’s history.

Liberman’s defenders responded that he was more statesmanlike as foreign minister than he was as an opposition MK, and he would be more moderate than expected in his new role. Israel did not move to the Right, the defenders said, because former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, who opposes a Palestinian state, was replaced by Liberman, who backs a twostate solution.

Proponents of Liberman noted that when Netanyahu sparred with the Obama administration in the past, his foreign minister at the time got along with US Secretary of State John Kerry.

Those prognostications were put under question on Friday when Liberman’s office released a strongly worded statement that compared the US-led deal that limits Iran’s nuclear capacity with the failed 1938 Munich Agreement with Hitler.

The statement was made in response to a claim on Thursday by US President Barack Obama, who stated on the first anniversary of the landmark nuclear agreement with Iran that the deal is working – and Israel knows it.

Netanyahu office quickly issued a follow- up statement to Liberman’s in support of the United States and Obama, even though Netanyahu had been one of the leading opponents of the agreement. In the statement, Netanyahu noticeably did not disagree with Liberman, only with his tone.

They were not playing good cop and bad cop – and it was clear that their statements were anything but coordinated. Netanyahu did not know in advance about Liberman’s statement, and he had to immediately send an olive branch to US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro while his ambassador in Washington Ron Dermer is in Jerusalem but not quite on vacation.

Liberman was saying out loud what Netanyahu and Liberman both think, but Netanyahu knows he cannot currently say, especially with a new military aid package on the table.

Netanyahu must get along with Obama as best as he can during the 165 days the president still has in office. The prime minister lost the fight over the Iran deal, and he knows there is no point in revealing any of Iran’s violations of the deal until there is a new American president in place who will do something about it (and both candidates have said they would).

Liberman, by contrast, can afford to focus on his own electorate. He cannot get away with attacking Hamas or the Aswan Dam for them, as he has promised in the past, but an American president who is extremely unpopular in Israel is fair game.

That is an advantage he holds over Netanyahu – at least for now. And it should come as no surprise that Liberman is taking the advantage he has over Netanyahu in their fight for right-wing voters.

Had they been playing good cop and bad cop, Netanyahu did not counter Liberman’s bad cop with a cop the Obama administration would have seen as good.

He was at best a mediocre cop from their point of view.

So who would be the good cop? Well, there wasn’t one in the current Netanyahu government until now. There were plenty of people dealing with foreign policy, but none of them were the Center-Left figures who did it in the past for Netanyahu, like Tzipi Livni or Ehud Barak.

That might have changed on Sunday, when Kulanu MK Michael Oren started his job as a deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office who will deal with foreign policy.

As ambassador to the US, Oren was very adamant against using Munich in the debate over Iran. He did not want to compare anyone to Nazis, Obama to Chamberlain, or Israel to Czechoslovakia.

Perhaps in his new role Oren could improve relations with the US during the last five months of the Obama administration.

But only if he is truly allowed to play that good-cop role.

If he is not, instead of there being a good cop, there may be only Keystone Cops, the fictional incompetent policemen from silent film lore a century ago.

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