Diplomacy: In like a lion

Not known for beating about the bush, Lieberman managed this week to shock his new staff.

lieberman easy now 248 88 (photo credit: AP)
lieberman easy now 248 88
(photo credit: AP)
Israeli politicians, it seems, have this thing for Frank Sinatra. Tommy Lapid reportedly asked that Sinatra's hit "I did it my way," be played at his funeral last year, and his good friend Ehud Olmert - sounding just a tad self-aggrandizing - used the same line to sum up his long political life in his farewell speech to the Knesset on Tuesday. But the politician for whom Sinatra's hit seemed most apt this week was none other than new Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who could have done worse than had that song played as musical accompaniment to his maiden address as the country's top diplomat. "I've been coming to these ceremonies for dozens of years," one veteran Israeli diplomat said, "and I never witnessed anything like this." The diplomat was referring to the way Lieberman took a traditionally parve, staid, banal ceremony - in which an incumbent minister formally hands over authority to the one taking over - and turned it into his own version of J'accuse. And the one whom he was accusing, his predecessor Tzipi Livni, sat on stage, listening poker-faced, but probably stunned, as her successor trashed the polices she has championed for the last eight years. Very undiplomatic. Very Lieberman. There were those in the Foreign Ministry who said Tuesday, before Lieberman took formal control of the ministry, that the office would mellow the man, and that within weeks of his taking the reins, there would be a line of foreign statesmen who, after meeting Lieberman, would say how pleasantly surprised they were by his "pragmatism." Then Wednesday Lieberman addressed the Foreign Ministry, and those assumptions melted away. It was not necessarily what Lieberman said that was so startling, but rather the in-your-face, no-holes-bared, this-is-who-I-am-get-used-to-it manner that some in the hall found so refreshing, and that others found so troubling. Afterwards, one western diplomat said he had found nothing really new in Lieberman's words, and that by ditching the Annapolis process, the foreign minister was not really diverging much from the Obama administration, which also has not embraced Annapolis, and which is still in the process of formulating its policy on the matter. Livni, after trashing her political opponents at a fiery Knesset speech on Tuesday ("ministers of nothing, deputy ministers of naught"), came to the Foreign Ministry the next day in a much more conciliatory mood, preceding Lieberman by saying that, despite their differences, they - and all governments - agreed on the fundamental premise of Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people. She added that even as head of the opposition, she would stand at the service of the country and represent it abroad when called upon to do so. And then - bam - Lieberman lowered the boom. "I think that we have seen the cheapening of many concepts, first and foremost of the word 'peace,'" he said, making it clear early on that his speech would not be vacuous niceties. "The fact that we say the word 'peace' 20 times a day will not bring peace any closer. There have been two governments here that took far-reaching measures: the Sharon government and the Olmert government. They took dramatic steps and made far-reaching proposals. We have seen the disengagement and witnessed the Annapolis accord. I read in the newspaper about the far-reaching proposals made by the prime minister to the other side, which I do not think have ever been made, outside of Barak's visit to Camp David. "Israel Beiteinu was not then part of the coalition; Avigdor Lieberman was not the foreign minister. Even if we wanted to, we couldn't have hampered bringing peace. But I do not see that it brought peace. To the contrary. It is precisely when we made all the concessions that I saw the Durban Conference, I saw two countries in the Arab world suddenly sever relations, recalling their ambassadors - Mauritania and Qatar. Qatar suddenly becoming extremist. "We are also losing ground every day in public opinion. Does anyone think that concessions, and constantly saying 'I am prepared to concede,' and using the word 'peace' will lead to anything? No, that will just invite pressure, and more and more wars. 'Si vis pacem, para bellum' - if you want peace, prepare for war, be strong. We certainly desire and want peace, but the other side also bears responsibility." ONE OF the elements that was so striking about Lieberman's comments - comments he made knowing that the world would be watching and listening carefully - was how starkly they contrasted with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's remarks to the Knesset the day before. Netanyahu's words were conciliatory, about how Israel did not want to rule over any Palestinians, how peace was possible, and how he would pursue it. His speech represented baby steps on his long journey aimed at convincing the world he was not the peace obstacle they had made him out to be. And then Lieberman took the stage and gave a completely different performance. By so doing, the new foreign minister was not only addressing the world, but also Netanyahu. His message to the prime minister was clear: "I am foreign minister, and I will have a huge say in determining foreign policy." Indeed, with one 15-minute speech, he changed the country's extant diplomatic policy, saying that Israel was no longer obligated by the Annapolis process. And he did so without consulting with the security cabinet, or with the regular cabinet, or with any governmental forum. If, under Livni, large chunks were bitten out of the Foreign Ministry's purview, with the Prime Minister's Office - as is traditionally the case - handling policy with the Americans, and the Defense Ministry running interference with the Egyptians, and even making inroads in policy vis-a-vis the Europeans, Lieberman sent a message to Netanyahu: "I intend to be an active foreign minister; don't even think about circumventing me." Lieberman's words came a day after Jeffrey Goldberg, writing on the Atlantic's Web site about an interview he conducted Tuesday with Netanyahu, wrote, "Netanyahu will manage Israel's relationship with Washington personally - his foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, of the anti-Arab Israel Beiteinu party, is deeply unpopular in Washington." Lieberman's clear reply Wednesday: "Not so fast." There were, in fact, a number of different messages in Lieberman's speech, meant for different audiences, but which all gave the country a good indication of where the new foreign minister is headed. HIS FIRST message was to his constituents, many of whom - like him - Russian-speaking immigrants. Sounding downright Obamaesque, and showing some signs of emotion, Lieberman started his speech by saying that he began his journey in Israel at Hebrew University's Givat Ram campus, just down the road from the Foreign Ministry, as a student in the international relations department. "When you go from being a student in international relations to the foreign minister, those are generally things that are only talked about, but also can turn out to be true. Also, as a new immigrant, to then achieve the status of deputy vice prime minister, is another dream come true. This only shows that we are a land of opportunities, that everything is possible, even more so than in the US," he said. HIS SECOND message was to the Foreign Ministry employees. Lieberman made clear that unlike Livni, who, according to numerous ministry employees, treated the ministry and its employees with barely hidden disdain, he intended to hug the ministry. To applause, and also in marked contrast to what Livni did, Lieberman said he would appoint as director-general someone from inside the ministry: a small gesture, but one that boosts morale and gives workers a sense of their own worth. He also said he would attend the weekly meetings of the ministry's top echelon, something - according to a senior ministry official - Livni did only on a handful of occasions over the last three years. This, too, adds to the workers' sense that they are being taken seriously. HIS THIRD message was to the Egyptians. Interestingly enough, outside of Somalia, which he held up as an example of a failed state, and Mauritania and Qatar, which he used to illustrate how concessions had not gained Israel any diplomatic benefits, the only other country he mentioned by name was Egypt. In an obvious attempt to mend fences with Cairo, Lieberman praised the country for its stabilizing role in the region, stressing that he respected Egypt, and that he only expected that it respect Israel as well. This was a far cry from his Knesset speech a few months back, in which he said that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak could "go to hell," if he refused to visit Israel. It was also an indication that he had internalized former prime minister Ariel Sharon's line that one sees things differently when sitting in positions of responsibility. HIS FINAL message was to the world, and it - in quintessential Lieberman fashion - was extremely direct: "Let us have no illusion; what was has failed." And his answer was not necessarily to search for something new and improved, but rather to go back to what was essentially ditched - the road map. The "performance-based road map to a permanent two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," accepted by Israel with 14 key reservations in 2003, is what Lieberman - sounding a lot like Sharon - wants now to return to: a set, spelled-out, phase-by-phase approach to peace-making that calls for the destruction of the Palestinian terrorist infrastructure, including in the Gaza Strip, and the establishment of effective Palestinian governing institutions before final-status negotiations are undertaken. Oh, and yes, it also calls for Israel to stop all settlement construction. The Annapolis process tried to short circuit this process, positing instead that the sides should talk about the final-status agreement now, but only implement it later, when the situation on the ground was ripe. Lieberman said no, that doesn't work, Annapolis had failed. Ironically, he is unlikely to find many inside the Obama administration who will argue with that, since the new administration has not as yet shown itself enamored of the process set into motion by former president George Bush, and embraced tightly by then secretary of state Condoleezza Rice. But buried within Lieberman's thundering "no" to Annapolis, was also a "yes" to the two-state solution, because that is where the road map - which Lieberman unequivocally said he accepted - ultimately leads. And it is the new foreign minister's acceptance of the two-state solution that the new government's new spokespeople have already been grasping at as proof for the world that Lieberman, see, isn't really all that bad; he accepts two states for two peoples. The thing they will now need to try to explain is that he just does things his own way.