Diplomacy: First politics, then the world

It is pure politics that compelled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to bring Avigdor Liberman on as defense minister. But it will make regional peace even harder to achieve.

By
June 4, 2016 08:55
Avigdor Liberman

Avigdor Liberman reviews an honour guard during a welcoming ceremony at the Defence Ministry in Tel Aviv, Israel May 31, 2016. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Avigdor Liberman took over the Defense Ministry on Tuesday in a changing-of-theguard ceremony at the Kirya that was as parve, staid and commonplace as these ceremonies usually are.

There was the honor guard, the handshaking, the inaugural speech by the new defense minister.

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And this speech, like the ceremony, was not especially noteworthy. Granted, Liberman – a resident of the Gush Etzion settlement of Nokdim – said that in the tension between the unity of the people and the unity of the land, the unity of the people takes precedence, but this was really nothing new for the Yisrael Beytenu head, who has said in the past that in exchange for genuine peace he would leave his home.

He even had words of praise for his predecessor, Moshe Ya’alon. While acknowledging that they had disagreements in the past (understatement), he praised Ya’alon for his contributions to Israel’s security.

Nope, no fireworks at this ceremony. And what was striking about the very banality of the event was the way it contrasted so starkly with the way he swept into the Foreign Ministry upon taking over there some seven years ago.

Back in April 2009, as now, both the international community as well as many in Israel were concerned that such a “hard-liner” would sit at the helm of such an important ministry. Then, as now, some warned that he would isolate Israel. Then, as now, others predicted that his “pragmatism” would win out.

But, unlike what happened at the Defense Ministry ceremony, Liberman’s inauguration into the Foreign Ministry was accompanied by fire and brimstone.

With his predecessor in the ministry Tzipi Livni sitting on the stage, Liberman essentially trashed the policies she had championed over the previous eight years. The ceremony was notable for the way the country’s top diplomat took over in a very undiplomatic fashion, serving notice that from that moment on he would do things very much his own way.

But there was none of that in-your-face brashness on display Tuesday at the Defense Ministry.

This ceremony was marked by an attempt to signal continuity, not a marked break from what had just come before.

While Liberman seemed to reckon, when he took over the Foreign Ministry in 2009, that the public would not blink at dramatic changes in the ministry’s policies, he seems to understand today that the public – invested in a much different, more intimate way in the state’s defense policies – wants to see continuity at the Defense Ministry. No rapid turns, no sharp, risky breaks rightward.

And Liberman, in his new position, will be paying particularly close attention to what the public wants. There is a good reason Liberman demanded this particular ministry. Liberman is a consummate politician with huge ambitions. The Defense Ministry is not the culmination of those ambitions but, rather, a launching pad toward the ultimate prize: the premiership.

But it is a launching pad provided he succeeds in the job, with success measured by whether, at the end of his tenure, Israelis feel more or less secure. Risky adventures that could turn sour and leave voters feeling more insecure and vulnerable will not help him politically.

And it is all about politics.

What the country has seen over the last several weeks – secret negotiations to expand the government, the surprise move to bring in Liberman and oust Ya’alon – has nothing to do with the Palestinians or positioning Israel to deal with various diplomatic initiatives coming down the chute. It has everything to do with domestic politics.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, like the vast majority of politicians the world over, is interested first and foremost in political survival. This is a country without term limits, so it is inconsequential that he has already been in power this time around for seven years.

Remaining in power is his No. 1 priority, from which everything else flows. Though this sounds cynical, it certainly is not unique.

Does Netanyahu have a vision for the state and plans he wants to execute to promote the country’s interests? Certainly. One may argue with that vision and his perception of the country’s interest, but they exist.

He cannot implement any of that, however, if he is not at the wheel, so his first concern is keeping his hand tightly gripped to that wheel.

Since being reelected last year, and setting up a narrow 61-seat coalition, Netanyahu has sought to create the impression that things were going along just swimmingly.

He may have lost some votes in the plenum from time to time, but – he had the public believe – they were relatively insignificant. He may ultimately have been dependent on some unpredictable MKs, such as Oren Hazan, but – he created the impression – it was all manageable.

The perception he was able to create, especially with recent moves to get agreement for a two-year budget – ensuring the government would not fall over budgetary issues for two years – was that his majority in the Knesset, though thin as could be, was sound and stable.

But it wasn’t. Apparently, Netanyahu was much more concerned about his political survivability than he let on, and felt a burning need to expand the government.

When efforts to bring in Isaac Herzog and the Zionist camp failed, partly because he would not deliver all that Herzog demanded, and partly because half of the Zionist camp had no interest in joining his government, he turned to Liberman, who was more than willing to join a coalition he had mercilessly assailed for the last year.

Both Netanyahu and Liberman got what they politically needed. Netanyahu got some breathing room for his government – one or two renegade MKs could no longer pose the threat they once did – and Liberman got his golden political opportunity to prove himself.

But now the world is knocking at the door. As a result, after all the political matters have been taken care of – first things first – it is now time to deal with other pressing issues, such as various diplomatic initiatives.

Which is why the first thing Netanyahu did after Liberman was sworn in as a minister on Monday, with the new defense minister at his side and indicating his concurrence, was to restate what he has said in the past: Israel is willing to negotiate with the Palestinians on the basis of a revised 2002 Arab Peace Initiative.

Netanyahu right now finds himself in a diplomatic pickle.

The lack of any diplomatic motion has given birth to the French initiative, which the premier sees as nothing less than an effort to impose a solution on Israel.

This is more than paranoia.

Some 30 countries and international organizations will be meeting in Paris on Friday – without the attendance of Israel or the Palestinian Authority – to discuss ways they think an agreement should be reached. Which is Netanyahu’s concern: a diktat.

The Palestinians did not get from Israel what they wanted by negotiating, so they are holding out and waiting for the world to deliver. And if it doesn’t happen via a French initiative, it could happen later in the year by way of a US-backed UN Security Council resolution. An impatient world, in Netanyahu’s view, is willing to play ball.

One way of deflecting these initiatives is by embracing another – embracing the idea of the regional conference first put forward by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi last month in an apparent effort at giving Herzog a reason to join the government.

Stunningly, and in a fascinating sign about how things have changed, Israel thinks its own interests would be better served by a diplomatic process under an Egyptian umbrella, rather than under a French one. But now that Liberman is in and Herzog is out, it is not clear whether Sisi will be as amenable to that idea.

Netanyahu has spoken often over the last number of years about changing the paradigm of peacemaking. If the Oslo model was predicated on the idea that a negotiated peace with the Palestinians would be followed by peace and normalcy with the whole Arab world, the shake-up in the Middle East as a result of the “Arab Spring” necessitates a change in the order.

First reach an accommodation with the Arab world – with which there is a confluence of interests – and then as a result of that accommodation it will be easier to reach peace with the Palestinians, because the Arab world will encourage more Palestinian flexibility.

While that paradigm works on paper, the problem has been in finding someone on the other side ready to grasp onto the idea and run with it.

And if this was the case before Liberman took over at the Defense Ministry on Tuesday, it is even more the case today.


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