A pragmatic Liberman makes his debut

So far, it appears that the pragmatic Liberman is gaining the upper hand.

November 17, 2016 21:11
3 minute read.
Avigdor Liberman

Avigdor Liberman. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman showed a healthy pragmatism this week when he said that Israel should seek an understanding with the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump with regard to settlement policy, while at the same time scolding his coalition partners, who have been acting as if they have been given free rein to build without restraint.

Speaking to diplomatic reporters on Wednesday, Liberman said Israel should seek from the new administration a deal that recognizes the settlement blocs, in exchange for a freeze on construction outside of the blocs where some 80 percent of the settler population lives.

Furthermore, he said that the government had received messages from the Trump team requesting that it not make any pronouncements about outgoing President Barack Obama. Liberman was referring to statements such as those by Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett, who on the morning after Trump’s election victory declared: “ The era of the Palestinian state is over.”

As Liberman noted, the smartest thing, Israel can do “is to sit patiently and wait to see who is in the administration, who is in the key jobs, and then coordinate positions.”

Despite his campaign promises, Trump’s policy regarding Israel and the Palestinians is still very much unclear. A Foreign Ministry paper last week predicted that the diplomatic process would not be top priority for the Trump administration and that it would seek to reduce US involvement in the region.

But in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Trump described ending the Israeli- Palestinian conflict as“the ultimate deal” and said it would be one he would like to make “for humanity’s sake.”

Israel now has some two months to figure out what Trump’s policy is really going to be like and to try and influence that policy.

It also has two months to figure out what its own policy will be. If Trump is going to adopt the kind of transactional “what’s in it for America” approach to deal making that analysts suspect he will, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will have to decide what he wants to get and what he is willing to give.

It’s unlikely that any kind of permanent- status deal can be reached with the Palestinians, but perhaps, as Liberman, suggested at the briefing, an interim agreement could be in the cards.

Now is the time for Israel to take the initiative and make a push for at least an interim deal. To get there, the Netanyahu government will have to not only leverage what it believes will be a favorable administration, but also to subdue the hubris of those voices calling for runaway construction and who believe that Israel can now do as it pleases.

Even if Trump opts for a hard-right choice, such as former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani – who has said the US should give up on a two-state solution – for his secretary of state, Israel should avoid the temptation to aim for maximalist positions that would kill off any hope of a negotiated solution.

It would do well to remember that the pendulum can always swing the other way.

When Avigdor Liberman was appointed defense minister back in May, I was concerned. Like many others, I wondered which side of his personality Liberman would show. Would it be the rash and reckless Liberman, who once suggested bombing Egypt’s Aswan Dam, who says Israel should retake control of Gaza in the event of another war with Hamas and who has labeled Israel’s Arab minority a fifth column? Or would he show his other side, the side that knows how to be pragmatic and to tone down rhetoric, a side that recognizes that Israel has no choice but to reach territorial compromise and a side that recognizes that regional conditions have matured to the point that for the first time an agreement acceptable for Israel can be reached.

So far, it appears that the pragmatic Liberman is gaining the upper hand.

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