Diplomacy: Same diagnosis, different cures

Liberman’s letter calling for PA elections, PM’s response reveal huge differences at the top.

PM Binyamin Netanyahu and FM Avigdor Lieberman 370 (R) (photo credit: Baz Ratner / Reuters)
PM Binyamin Netanyahu and FM Avigdor Lieberman 370 (R)
(photo credit: Baz Ratner / Reuters)
‘A happy symphony of contrasting voices” is how one diplomatic official charitably explained to a foreign correspondent this week the odd occurrence of Israel’s prime minister saying that when the country’s foreign minister speaks, he does not reflect the government’s policies.
Though one may take issue with the characterization of the current coalition as a “happy symphony,” the “contrasting voices” element of the statement – at least when it comes to the diplomatic process with the Palestinians – is spot on.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman sent a letter this week to the Quartet laying down why he believes the diplomatic process with the Palestinians is stymied. His overlying argument is not new: The government has taken numerous steps to improve the atmosphere with the Palestinian Authority, only to be slapped in the face time and time again by PA President Mahmoud Abbas, who, rather than reciprocating, is waging war against Israel in the diplomatic and legal arenas.
“Mr. Mahmoud Abbas’s unfortunate behavior indicated that he apparently is uninterested or unable – due to his standing in the domestic Palestinian scene vis-a-vis Hamas, and in light of the regional geopolitical situation – to reach an agreement which would bring an end to the conflict, including addressing all the core issues,” Liberman wrote. “Instead he is creating a culture of blaming Israel for delaying the process, while attempting to achieve advantages without negotiation via blackmailing and ongoing attempts to internationalize the conflict.”
That sums up the diagnosis of the reason for the stalemate in the diplomatic process extant in Jerusalem: Abbas, for a variety of reasons, is unwilling to negotiate with the Netanyahu government. And that diagnosis is accepted by the government’s “big three:” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Liberman.
Where the “contrasting voices” come into play is how to solve the problem. The differences are not over the diagnosis, but rather the cure. And this is why Liberman’s letter has made waves.
The cure he advocates is a simple one: hold long-overdue elections in the PA – they were supposed to have been held in 2010 – and get rid of Abbas.
“The Palestinian Authority is a despotic government riddled with corruption,” he wrote. “Due to Abbas’s weak standing and his policy of not renewing the negotiations, which is an obstacle to peace, the time has come to consider a creative solution, to think ‘outside the box,’ in order to strengthen the Palestinian leadership.”
“General elections in the PA should be held,” he concluded “and a new, legitimate, hopefully realistic Palestinian leadership should be elected.”
Wham! The reactions were as swift in coming as they were predictable. The Palestinians, who just a month earlier wrote a damning letter about Israel to the EU, urging it not to upgrade relations with it because of a long litany of complaints, cried foul. One Palestinian spokesman wrung his hands about how Israel could dare to interfere in their internal affairs, and another said Liberman’s letter was nothing less than incitement to kill Abbas.
Netanyahu also responded swiftly, with his office issuing a statement distancing him far from Liberman’s conclusions.
The letter, said a source in the Prime Minister’s Office, “does not reflect the position of Prime Minister Netanyahu or the government as a whole.”
“It is not Israel’s policy to interfere in the electoral process in other places,” the source said. He added that while there was acknowledgement in Netanyahu’s office that the PA under Abbas has created difficulties that have prevented the resumption of negotiations, “we nevertheless remain committed to restarting the dialogue with the Palestinians.”
In other words, Netanyahu agrees with the diagnosis but not the cure. Netanyahu’s office itself could have written the Liberman letter detailing complaints of Abbas’s behavior – and certainly the section of the letter where the foreign minister wrote that Abbas has simplistically and erroneously turned the settlements into the main issue, when they are not. But Netanyahu’s office would have stopped well short of calling for new PA elections and the need to replace Abbas.
Those are words Netanyahu has never said. Rather than dumping Abbas (what if Hamas wins new elections, or Abbas is reelected?) the treatment Netanyahu favors is behavioral modification.
Netanyahu believes the Quartet should use its powers of persuasion to convince Abbas that his efforts at diplomatic guerrilla warfare are going nowhere. He wants them to make clear to the Palestinian leader that they will not extract him from the tall tree upon which he has climbed, but rather that he himself must simply climb down and negotiate.
And Barak? Barak, too, believes in the overall diagnosis that Abbas has not responded sufficiently to what Israel and this government has done, including the 10-month settlement freeze two years ago. But his solution – and he himself spoke this week to Abbas as part of a round of what could be called Id al-Fitr phone diplomacy – is that Israel should be more pro-active in moving the process forward, even taking unilateral steps if necessary.
Same diagnosis, three different cures. And this, obviously, can confuse those outside watching to see what happens to the patient. Consider the following interchange at the State Department’s daily briefing in Washington on Wednesday.
“Does it concern you at all that your great ally in the Middle East has a government that doesn’t seem to be able to speak with a unified voice, or is this just what you would consider typical of an Israeli coalition government?” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland was asked by a reporter.
“Around the world, there are governments where their multiple voices come out,” she replied. “We ourselves are not always unified on all kinds of issues.” And then the follow-up: “But is it safe to assume, though, that you’re going to take the prime minister’s word as the word of the government and not his foreign minister?”
Nuland’s response: Netanyahu has “made clear that… he is the leading voice on these issues.”
In other words, in this “happy symphony” that is the current coalition; Liberman – at least in the eyes of the US – is not seen as playing first violin. The US, and most of the world, knows how to differentiate among the different instruments and distinguish which one is dominant.
Then why did Liberman write the letter, and what did it achieve?
First of all, he wrote it in response to the PA’s July letter to the EU. That letter, which enraged both the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office, accused Israel of all types of crimes – theft, exploitation of resources, removal of communities, changing the demography of Jerusalem, destruction of projects in Area C, torture and extra-judicial killings – and called for the EU to freeze its level of ties with Israel. Not the type of behavior, an Israeli official said at the time, one expects from a “peace partner.” Liberman’s letter is one type of answer, showing Abbas that Israel, too, can take its grievances in letter form to the international community to the detriment of the other party.
He also wrote the letter because September is just a week away, and with it what is turning into the annual rite of the Palestinians going to the UN to ask for statehood recognition.
The argument the PA is expected to use this time is that the diplomatic process is going nowhere; Israel is responsible for the negotiations going nowhere; and therefore the international community must step in and establish facts on the ground by granting the Palestinians nonmember observer status as a state at the UN.
Israel disputes one of the two premises; not that diplomatic process is not moving – that is clear to all. Rather, Jerusalem says – and Liberman spelled this out in his letter in some detail – that the process is not moving because of Palestinian intransigence. Both Netanyahu and Liberman have been saying this for months in different speeches and meetings. What the letter did was concretize those ideas.
And, finally, the letter – and its blatant interference in the domestic affairs of another entity – was a response to what is viewed in Jerusalem as Abbas’s playing in Israeli and even US domestic politics.
There is a widely-held sense in Jerusalem that among the reasons Abbas is refusing to meet with Netanyahu is because he is waiting for one of two things to happen: Either he is waiting until after the American elections on November 6 in the hope that US President Barack Obama will win and then be freer to once again get more involved in the diplomatic process and turn the screws on Israel; or he is waiting for new elections in Israel, hoping that they could bring into power a more pliable Israeli government.
Liberman’s letter told the Palestinians simply: Get involved in our domestic politics, and we will get involved in yours.
Indeed, the letter did put the PA election issue on the agenda, at least for a moment.
“Aside from the source of the letter,” the State Department’s Nuland was asked at her daily press briefing, “don’t you agree that perhaps it is time for a Palestinian election to be held and a new leadership chosen?”
Liberman knows full well what the answer will be: that the US says it does not interfere in others’ politics. But what he wanted to do was just get the question asked. This letter was Liberman’s signature way of telling the Palestinians that two can play the game he believes the Palestinians have been playing for months.
As for the prime minister’s reservations? Again, what Netanyahu objected to was Liberman’s proposed cure, not his overall diagnosis.