Ayalon: Liberman portrayed Israel as belligerent

Former deputy FM tells 'Post' that Liberman's tenure as FM had been "a failure" and "it would be wrong" for him to regain post.

Ayalon and Netanyahu 370 (photo credit: GPO)
Ayalon and Netanyahu 370
(photo credit: GPO)
Four more years of Avigdor Liberman in the foreign ministry would harm the country’s interest because he is irrelevant abroad and viewed as unnecessarily belligerent, Liberman’s former deputy, Danny Ayalon told The Jerusalem Post this week.
Ayalon, whom Liberman unceremoniously left off the Israel Beytenu party list before the recent elections, said he and others in the foreign ministry tried, from Liberman’s first day in office, to make the new foreign minister palatable abroad.
Ayalon will be one of the prosecution’s key witnesses called to testify in Liberman’s upcoming fraud and breach of trust trial.
According to Ayalon, one of the first things he did as Liberman’s deputy was to try to alter the negative image of him abroad. Ayalon said that soon after the 2009 elections he arranged an interview with Liberman by Newsweek/Washington Post reporter Lally Weymouth, who Ayalon said was “quite impressed.”
“He said some things she did not expect,” Ayalon said.
“He talked about the evacuation of settlements, and said that for peace he would even leave his own house in Nokdim. That was supposed to open the door for him to the capitals of the world and turn him into a statesman.”
Ayalon, sitting over coffee in a Tel Aviv cafe, recalled how he and others in the foreign ministry “worked together to promote Liberman, and to explain to the world that not only is he the democratically elected foreign minister, but also that he is a worthy interlocutor with leadership capabilities, decision-making capabilities, political courage, and with the creativity to sometimes think out of the box.”
Ayalon said he felt at the time that it was his duty to open doors around the world for Israel’s number one diplomat, the “face of the country.”
“Unfortunately, four years after the fact, we collectively did not succeed in making him a relevant figure internationally, and in making him – along with the prime minister – a foremost representative of Israel overseas.”
Ayalon, who claimed not to be motivated in his comments by vengeance, but rather by professional obligation, said it was necessary to analyze what went wrong and correct it for the future.
“In four years there was a failure,” he said, “and it would be wrong for the country, for the foreign ministry and also for Liberman, to put him in that position again.”
Ayalon suggested that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu appoint Liberman finance, not foreign, minister in the next government.
“The finance minister is not less important than the foreign minister, and maybe even more important. It would be better for him, and better for the country.”
A spokesman for Liberman responded to Ayalon’s criticism by saying that the former deputy foreign minister praised the job Liberman was doing as foreign minister dozens of times, including in a radio interview on the very morning of the day when he was left off the Israel Beytenu list.
“It is therefore clear that Ayalon’s remarks flow from vengeance and frustration, and do not deserve a response,” the spokesman said.
Ayalon said the main reason for Liberman’s ineffectiveness as foreign minister was because at the very outset he recused himself from the Palestinian issue, saying that because he lived in Nokdim, it would be a conflict of interest for him to work on this issue.
The world, Ayalon said, interpreted this as an excuse, and believed he simply did not want to deal with an issue that was not politically popular. This hurt Liberman’s credibility, he said, and he was seen “more as a politician who did not want to go against his constituency in Israel than as a statesman.”
Ayalon said the impression that Liberman was more politician than statesman was further hammered home to the international community when he addressed the United Nations in September 2010, and essentially contradicted policies Netanyahu espoused at the time.
This was during that brief period when Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas were actually talking. Liberman, addressing the world body, called for a long term interim agreement and said the guiding principle in drawing up an agreement with the Palestinians should not be land for peace, but rather redrawing the borders and swapping populated territory.
“This speech put him in an awkward position, because it looked as if he did not represent the government,” Ayalon said, adding that the speech was seen as a political address directed at his own constituency.
“It gave the wrong perception that Israel is belligerent, aggressive, and most of all that it does not speak in one voice,” he said. He added that Israel was hindered by the impression that it had neither a clear strategy, nor a direction.
Ayalon deflected the notion that Israel is isolated internationally because of Liberman.
“I believe that in this case the international community has a chip on its shoulder. It expects more from Israel than [from] the Palestinians, and it doesn’t give us enough credit for what we do – like the Bar-Ilan speech [where Netanyahu accepted the two-state solution], like the settlement freeze, like the offers made by [Defense Minister and former prime minister] Ehud Barak and [former prime minister] Ehud Olmert.”
But, Ayalon added, Liberman’s conduct and statements and “the conduct of our diplomacy in the last four years, did not ameliorate the situation. We played according to the stereotype: that we are the belligerent side.”
In order to reverse the trend, Ayalon – who met Netanyahu the day after he left his post as deputy foreign minister earlier this month – said it was important for Israel to take the initiative, recommending “recognition for recognition”: The Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish state, and Israel recognizes the Palestinians as “a member state of the UN without final borders.”
“I’m not giving them anything regarding territorial control – they already have Areas A and B,” he said. “But this way we could negotiate from parity on the other issues.”
He said that Israel would retain overall security responsibility in order to keep Hamas from taking over the West Bank.
Right now, Ayalon said, the Palestinians are concerned that any interim agreement would become permanent, while Israel is worried that any permanent agreement will in reality only be an interim one.
Recognizing a Palestinian state now, and then negotiating on the core issues, would “change their own perceptions, and make them feel masters of their own destiny,” Ayalon said. “It could also create a basis for much deeper economic cooperation and change the atmosphere and the dynamics of the conflict.”
Such an initiative, Ayalon argued, “could rattle the cage and change some things.” It would also “show the international community that we are serious. We are accused of talking about two states, and not meaning it. This will put that notion to rest.”