Avigdor Liberman’s decision Monday, at nearly the very last moment, to quit the Foreign Ministry and the coalition negotiations and take his hard-right Yisrael Beytenu party into the opposition caused enormous headaches for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
But it also relieved one relatively small pain, but a pain nonetheless: Netanyahu, at least temporarily, will have someone in the Foreign Ministry who actually speaks for him – Netanyahu himself.
Israel awoke Thursday morning, after weeks of coalition haggling and brinkmanship, to a narrow government that will not include a full-time foreign minister. At a time with numerous diplomatic challenges lurching around the corner, Israel will have a dedicated tourism minister, energy and water minister, and culture and sport minister. It will not have a full-time foreign minister.
Rather, its foreign minister will be the prime minister, who obviously has a lot of other things on his plate beyond worrying about – or cultivating – Israel’s ties with Kazakhstan, Angola and Colombia.
This is the third time Netanyahu has worn both hats, having done so for nine months during his first term in 1998, and again from December 2012 to November 2013 when Liberman resigned in order to face corruption charges. During the later period Netanyahu kept the foreign minister’s seat warm, awaiting Liberman’s return – and, indeed, Liberman returned after his acquittal.
Now, too, Netanyahu will only be keeping the seat warm. His campaign spokesman Nir Hefetz told Israel Radio Thursday that Netanyahu was keeping the ministry open for Zionist Union co-leader Isaac Herzog, in the eventuality that Herzog decides to join the government.
That may yet happen, but it may take some time. In the meantime, the ministry will be in Netanyahu’s caretaker hands, which has both pluses and minuses.
The biggest minus is that it leaves the ministry – badly demoralized over the years both because of a never-ending labor dispute, and because it has essentially been sidelined from some of the main diplomatic action – in limbo.
The comptroller’s report published this week highlighted an anomalous situation whereby the ministry is short-handed when it comes to qualified diplomats, and this is a situation that will only be rectified with someone at the top of the pyramid taking charge to shepherd through structural changes. But for that, you need someone devoted at the top who has the time and energy to expend on bureaucratic institutional reorganization. This is not necessarily Netanyahu’s cup of tea, especially not in the role of a caretaker foreign minister.
The ministry is also in need of a full-time minister who will fight for budgets and for influence. Again, Netanyahu – as a temporary fill-in – is unlikely to do that.
One of the most peculiar things Liberman did as foreign minister was to remove the ministry from one of the most burning diplomatic questions: the Palestinian issue.
In July 2009 he essentially disengaged the Foreign Ministry from dealing with the Palestinian track, saying it had heretofore become overly obsessed with that single issue, at the expense of more traditional duties like cultivating ties with South America and Africa. He also said it would be a conflict of interest for someone like him – who lives in the settlement of Nokdim – to deal with the Palestinian issue, which also means the future of the settlements.
“I think that from my standpoint, there is clearly a conflict of interest. Someone who lives in a small, isolated settlement, not even among the settlement blocs, for me to deal with that issue is clearly a conflict of interest, and I would not want them to blame me afterward for intentionally torpedoing important diplomatic negotiations,” he said at the time.
In one fell swoop, therefore, Liberman removed the ministry from the Palestinian channel, which meant also removing it from carrying the ball in the relationship with the US. Then-defense minister Ehud Barak happily moved into the breach.
In addition to not leading the charge with the Palestinians and the Americans, Liberman – because of previous statements he made regarding the Egyptians – was not a major player in managing that extremely important relationship, or in managing the very significant relationship with Jordan.
Day-to-day handling of both those strategic relationships is now firmly in the hands of the Prime Minister’s Office and the Defense Ministry. Netanyahu, as fill-in foreign minister, is unlikely to fight hard for the ministry to come in and claim back some of that very important turf.
As to the pluses of Netanyahu as caretaker foreign minister, the main one is that the Prime Minister’s Office will not have to deny that the foreign minister was speaking for the government, something it awkwardly had to do on numerous occasions during Liberman’s tenure.
More than once did the Prime Minister’s Office issue a disclaimer to comments made by Liberman, saying that his comments reflected his own personal opinion, and not those of the government.
The most glaring example was in 2010, when Liberman addressed the UN and contradicted on the world’s premier stage the policies that his boss had been advocating.
While Netanyahu’s formal position at the time was of being in favor of negotiations leading to a comprehensive two-state solution, Liberman said the focus should be on a “long-term immediate agreement, something that could take a few decades.”
He also used that speech to promote the idea of an “exchange of populated territory,” meaning to redraw the future lines of two states based on demographic realities: Drawing inside Israel the bulk of the settlers, and drawing inside a future Palestinian state much of the Israeli-Arab population. That was not at all in line with Netanyahu’s policies.
With this speech Liberman struck out on his own, using his position to promote his own ideas – not necessarily those of the government.
After that speech, the Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement saying it was not coordinated with Netanyahu.
This penchant for speaking out as foreign minister compounded a problem already endemic in Israel. While Palestinian Authority officials speak on-message, numerous voices come out of Jerusalem, muddling Israel’s message.
But it is one thing if those speaking off-message are members of the opposition, or a junior minister of another party. It is another thing altogether when the speaker is the foreign minister and a member of the prime minister’s own party, as Liberman was until he ended the Likud Beytenu alliance during last summer’s war in Gaza.
When the foreign minister sings a tune incompatible with that of the prime minister, it inevitably leads people to question what indeed is the government’s policy – a situation that plagued the previous government.
So, for now at least, that confusion will be eliminated because the foreign minister and prime minister will be one and the same man.
Paradoxically, however, one problem with the situation is it means that Netanyahu, who has a complicated and difficult relationship with US President Barack Obama and some European leaders, will not have someone in the Foreign Ministry he can commission with the task of trying to smooth over those relations.
Or, as The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, a caustic Netanyahu critic, quipped on Twitter this week, “Netanyahu will apparently be his own foreign minister. Perhaps he will send himself to Washington to repair the damage caused by Netanyahu.”
IN LIEU OF a full-time foreign minister, the role of deputy foreign minister will now take on added importance, as the deputy foreign minister will be in day-to-day charge of the ministry.
When Liberman absented himself from the ministry in 2013, Ze’ev Elkin became the deputy foreign minister for most of that period. This time, there is speculation that former ambassador to the US and Kulanu MK Michael Oren might fill the bill.
Oren’s relationship with Netanyahu is somewhat of an enigma. It was Netanyahu who plucked the articulate Oren out of academia and sent him to Washington in 2009, where he ably and effectively both managed Netanyahu’s complicated relationship with the White House and represented Israel to the US public.
Then he returned to Israel in 2013, later joining Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu Party. That move obviously reflected a degree of disenchantment by Oren with Netanyahu’s diplomatic policies, but probably also reflected the cold political calculation that it would be much easier getting into the Knesset via the one-manselects- all Kulanu electoral system, then through the rough-and-tumble politics of the Likud.
In a political culture marked by nastiness, it is noteworthy that neither Netanyahu nor Oren has openly or even through anonymous spokespeople disparaged the other.
Indeed, sources close to Netanyahu say he has much respect for Oren’s abilities as a diplomat and the way he performed as ambassador in Washington.
Oren as deputy foreign minister would give Netanyahu something that Liberman, with his track record of “undiplomatic” statements as well as his bulldog, aggressive and outspoken style, was unable to provide: a smiling and “presentable” face to the world.
And with the world expected to begin pressing Israel hard on the Palestinian issue, it could be a significant asset having as deputy foreign minister someone who can not only deftly and diplomatically present the country’s case to the world, but who is also respected by many and not viewed as “extremist” – a label that, unfairly or not, will dog the new government and will be used by the Palestinians to Israel’s detriment.