Analysis: The perils of playing out of position

FM seen as a illegitimate partner for dialogue.

July 2, 2010 04:03
4 minute read.
Avigdor Liberman and Binyamin Netanyahu

lieberman netanyahu duo 298. (photo credit: AP/Ariel Jerozolimski [file[)

The current brouhaha over Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s decision to go around Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman when talking to the Turks raises fascinating political questions about the nature of the Netanyahu-Lieberman relationship, and whether Israel Beiteinu will bolt the coalition.

But it also raises diplomatic questions – namely, what do you do when your foreign minister, either justifiably or not, is not seen as a legitimate partner for dialogue by key countries around the world?

Israel and Turkey currently have an objective problem: Their relations are tanking, something that is bad for Israel, bad for Turkey and – the US has determined – bad for Washington as well.

Now let’s say you want to do something to salvage those relations, but you have another problem: Neither the foreign minister, because of bellicose comments he has made, nor his deputy minister Danny Ayalon, because of his public humiliation of the Turkish envoy in January, is seen as a possible interlocutor by the Turks.

Do you say, “Well, if they won’t talk to Lieberman, we won’t talk to them?” Or, because the relationship is worth salvaging, do you say, “They won’t talk to Lieberman, but maybe they will talk to someone else,” and then send that someone else – in this case Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer – to do the talking?

Netanyahu chose the latter route, but then erred tactically by not informing Lieberman in advance (the reasons for this tactical glitch remain clouded within the weak explanation of “technical reasons.”)

But the whole episode shines light on a deeper problem facing the country: It has a foreign minister who – again, justly or unjustly – is shunned by some key countries in the world, and who is seen by others, such as the US, as largely irrelevant to the main course on the plate – the Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic process – because he has voluntarily removed himself from the table.

Jordan and Egypt, two countries with which Israel has important ties, won’t deal with Lieberman because of various comments he has made in the past or because of their own preconceived notions of his positions – some of which have, by the way, been badly misrepresented. (For instance, while Lieberman does talk about moving Israeli Arabs into a Palestinian state, and Jews in the settlements into Israel, he doesn’t advocate physically moving – or physically transferring – a soul; rather, he’s for redrawing the borders along ethnic lines so that in a future two-state solution, Jews are drawn into a Jewish state, and Arabs into a Palestinian one.)

So right off the bat, Jordan, Egypt and Turkey – not inconsequential pieces in Israel’s foreign policy puzzle – are taken off Lieberman’s lap because they won’t deal with him. Still, one could argue, there is a big, wide world out there, and – as foreign minister – Lieberman could run Israel’s relations with everyone else.

Right, in theory.

In practice, however, Lieberman – by saying last year that he did not believe in the efficacy of the current Palestinian-Israeli track, and that while he would not hinder attempts to find an agreement, he would not be a participant, either – took himself out of the country’s most important diplomatic game.

Lieberman voluntarily said he wouldn’t deal with the Palestinian issue. But still, the issue has to be dealt with, which explains why last week, when Defense Minister Ehud Barak went to Washington, he met with US Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and a host of others, and why when Lieberman went to New York last month, he met with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Barak, for the American administration, is a player because he deals with the Israeli-Palestinian issue (and also because his position is closer to theirs than anyone else’s in the government); Lieberman is not, because he has said he doesn’t believe in the game.

This brings us to the original sin. If Lieberman, because of his positions and past statements, is not seen by much of the world as a partner for dialogue, and if, because of his own convictions, he doesn’t want to deal with the Palestinian-Israeli track as it is currently configured, why exactly is he foreign minister? Why isn’t he interior minister, or public security minister, or national infrastructures minister, or even – as he has been in the past – strategic affairs minister?

The answer is obvious: politics. The prestigious and influential Foreign Ministry is the position that he demanded way back in March 2009 to join the government, and all the other portfolios are not weighty enough for the head of the coalition’s second-largest party.

But by acceding to this demand, Netanyahu made the same fatal error that his predecessor Ehud Olmert made three years earlier when he appointed Amir Peretz as defense minister: He created a government manned by key people playing out of position. And, as any baseball fan will attest, when you have the wrong people in the wrong positions, it’s just a matter of time before critical errors are committed.

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