Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
It was an awkward moment at an awkward press conference.
Normally, politicians in Israel speak in Hebrew. If they speak in English at all, they do so at the end of the press conference, while the local crews are taking apart their equipment.
At the Knesset on Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu started speaking in English all of a sudden, said two sentences, and immediately went back into Hebrew. It was clear he wanted to make sure the Israeli media would hear what he said in his second mother tongue.
In English, he reiterated that he is committed to pursuing peace. He said expanding the government would help him pursue all avenues to achieve peace. Avigdor Liberman then added in English that he is committed to responsible and balanced policy, which led to Netanyahu complimenting the improvement in the English of his former bureau chief, looking like a divorced couple trying desperately to be nice to each other in front of their kids.
Between the two of them, they said the word “peace” more than Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog did during the entire campaign.
The statements were remarkable, because as Netanyahu was speaking, the foreign press was reporting that Israel would now have the most right-wing government in its history. The same media outlets that claim that moderates are in charge in Iran were making it seem as if Israel has a government so Right that its left hand has been amputated.
It is hard to fault the foreign press after no less than the former minister of defense, Moshe Ya’alon, said Israel and its ruling party were becoming more extreme.
But since Ya’alon made the statement, Netanyahu has been motivated to prove him wrong by advancing a new peace process. It may indeed be easier to do so with a broader government, and he also may feel more free to take diplomatic steps without Liberman criticizing him from the opposition.
Liberman is also out to prove people wrong. He did so as foreign minister when the American administration saw him as a moderating force who helped ease strained relations with the administration’s critics, Netanyahu and Ya’alon.
Those who have spoken to Liberman in recent days say he does not sound like the same man who threatened to assassinate Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh two months ago.
They say he sounds determined to moderate his extremist image, which can enable him to run for prime minister in the future.
The Israeli public is confused about Liberman’s views. A poll on the Knesset Channel two weeks ago found that half of Israelis consider him far Right, 18% say he is moderate Right, 6% as centrist, 1% as moderate, and 20% said his views were unclear because he zigzags. A similar poll a year and a half ago found Israelis consider him more moderate.
But what Israelis can agree on is that Liberman is defiant.
And if being defiant means pursuing a more moderate agenda, so be it.
He will certainly be tested, and there will be more awkward moments. In future press conferences, Israelis and the foreign press will be able to see whether it was Liberman’s right or left hand that withered in the Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv’s Kirya compound.