When Avigdor Liberman was appointed as strategic affairs minister in 2006, I was running the Jerusalem office of the Israel Project, a US-based NGO.
One of the things the Israel Project did was assist top Israeli officials in public diplomacy on such issues as the peace process and Iran, by presenting them with survey results and recommendations from some of America’s top political pollsters. Told by my boss in Washington that renowned Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg was heading to Jerusalem with new polling on Iran, I suggested we add a meeting with Liberman, whose ministry was tasked with handling public diplomacy on countering Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
There was one problem: Greenberg is a man of strong liberal convictions, and though I had seen him consult comfortably with such right-wing leaders as Benjamin Netanyahu, he expressed discomfort meeting with Liberman because of his harsh rhetoric and positions regarding Israeli Arabs.
I checked with Liberman’s strategic adviser, someone I knew and trusted; he assured me his boss was a far more pragmatic personality than his public utterances suggested, and would be happy to be briefed on the pollster’s results on how to best address the Iran issue abroad.
A meeting was set for Greenberg in Liberman’s Knesset office, including myself and his adviser. I was feeling pretty good about having set this up, until Stan, right after the introductions, said: “Minister, before we get started, there’s something I have to say.”
Greenberg told Liberman he thoroughly objected to his remarks and proposals regarding Israeli Arabs, finding them morally objectionable, and diplomatically damaging to Israel in the arena of world opinion.
Both my eyes and those of his adviser locked in a dance of near-panic. Although Liberman’s typically deadpan expression barely shifted, for a brief second I thought I felt a chilly Moldavian winter breeze blowing our way.
Then Liberman seemed to give a slight shrug, and replied: “Okay, you said that, now what do you have to show me?” The rest of the meeting, as Greenberg went through the Iran material, went fine, with an engaged Liberman asking pertinent questions and offering what sounded like a sincere thanks at the end. Afterward, his adviser took me aside for a told-you-so chat about the pragmatism of his boss.
This then, is the Liberman many of us who dread the alternative are hoping will show up at the Defense Ministry each day.
It’s one we’ve seen flashes of in the past, such as when he made a surprising effort as foreign minister to ease the deep breaches between the Netanyahu government and the Obama administration.
It’s also the politician who, oddly enough, is now the minister who has spoken most unequivocally of his acceptance of a two-state solution (albeit on terms the Palestinians and international community will never accept).
Having seen this Liberman in close quarters, I am thus less concerned than many others over the possibility of his ordering extreme and reckless actions from the defense minister’s chair.
THERE IS though another side to Liberman to worry about – and I’ve a story about that too.
In 2013 I interviewed Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat shortly before his reelection victory against challenger Moshe Leon, a close political associate of Liberman who wasn’t even living in the capital at the time.
I asked Barkat why Liberman had cooked up Leon’s long-shot candidacy in the months before the vote, even forging an alliance with local haredi political leaders that went against everything his Yisrael Beytenu supposedly stood for on religion-state issues.
Barkat responded that after his first election victory, Liberman had come to him with personnel suggestions to fill various municipal posts, none of whom was qualified.
When the mayor turned him down, he said Liberman made clear there would be consequences – and the Leon candidacy was the payback.
After years of covering politics here it takes a lot to shock me, but the sheer cynicism of Liberman’s willingness to sell out Jerusalem’s non-haredi population for the sake of political expediency and petty account-settling came close.
This is the Liberman whose shady business dealings here and abroad were the subject of years of police investigation. The wheeler- dealer who brought the hard-drinking, strip-club habitué Stas Meseznikov into the cabinet, while alienating or discarding more capable figures from his Knesset list, including Yair Shamir, Danny Ayalon and Orly Levy-Abecassis. The political leader whose apparent tolerance of malfeasance helped foster a culture of deep corruption in Yisrael Beytenu, including the current scandal that has entangled more than two dozen of the party’s top officials in a web of bribery and fraud accusations.
That this figure is now running the government’s most important and sensitive ministry, one where corruption and politics- worse-then-usual can become a matter of life and death for this nation’s soldiers, is what has me concerned – especially with one of my own children scheduled to enter military service later this year.
Liberman, to quote Churchill’s famous remark about Russia, has until now been a riddle wrapped up in a mystery inside an enigma. I know people, on both the Right and Left, who seriously believe he is really some sort of “Manchurian Candidate” Russian mole, still answering to his real masters in the Kremlin.
While that’s nonsense, the real Liberman is unknown to us. So let’s hope that when we do find out who our new defense minister really is, it’s one who turns out to be more than our best expectations – and not worse than our deepest fears.
Calev Ben-David is the political/diplomatic correspondent for IBA English TV News.