Analysis: How Lieberman under fire could impact on the diplomatic process

Analysis: How a Lieberman indictment could impact diplomatic process.

lieberman argentina naughty 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
lieberman argentina naughty 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman sat on a couch in the foyer just outside of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's office mid-Sunday afternoon, apparently waiting for a meeting. The sight of the foreign minister waiting in the hall was uncharacteristic. People usually wait for Lieberman, not the other way around. It led one reporter, being ushered into another part of the building for a briefing on the morning's cabinet meeting, to guess: "It must be related to the indictment." And, indeed, some three hours later, the police announced they were recommending Lieberman be charged for a veritable laundry list of alleged crimes: taking bribes, fraudulently receiving goods, violating his public office, obstructing justice, harassing a witness and laundering millions of shekels. The question one immediately asks when the police recommend indicting one's foreign minister, is what impact this will have on the country's foreign relations. And the answer to that is that there will be minimal direct impact. In other words, it is not as if the negotiations going on right now with the US will grind to a halt because of the police recommendation, because Lieberman was not actively involved in these talks. Contrary to initial expectations, Lieberman - for a number of reasons - has not been widely felt in the diplomatic arena. The Egyptians won't deal with him, the Europeans give him a cold shoulder, he did not achieve as much as was expected during his visit to Russia, and the Americans are content dealing with Defense Minister Ehud Barak in his stead. Oddly enough, Lieberman took himself out of the big diplomatic game last month when he held a press conference during one of Barak's meetings with George Mitchell, and said that he had no problem with Barak dealing with the US envoy since he did not feel right - as a resident of the small settlement of Nokdim in the Judean desert - negotiating about settlements. This was the first time in the history of the state that the foreign minister rescued himself from the major diplomatic action of the time. Indicative of the extent to which Lieberman is indeed sidelined in the current diplomatic maneuvers is the fact that during the pilgrimage here last week by US President Barack Obama's leading Middle East team - Mitchell, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, National Security Adviser Jim Jones and National Security Council Middle East expert Dennis Ross - Lieberman was off in Argentina, Colombia, Brazil and Peru. So a recommendation to indict Lieberman will not be felt much diplomatically, because Lieberman has not been felt much diplomatically. But that is not the end of the story. For even though Lieberman was not actively involved in any of the negotiations, Netanyahu could focus on these matters knowing that he had a strong coalition; knowing that Lieberman was not going to bolt; and knowing that Lieberman had full control over his party, even members like Uzi Landau, for whom some of the prime minister's statements - such as two states for two peoples - were not exactly music to his ears. If - and this is of course a huge if - Lieberman is indeed indicted and forced out of office, then no one knows what will happen to Israel Beiteinu. Will the party remain in the government, or will it bolt? And if it remains, will it be as obedient as it has been under Lieberman? A Lieberman indictment will once again shuffle the country's political cards, forcing Netanyahu to concentrate more on Tzipi Livni, Shaul Mofaz, Danny Ayalon and Landau then on Obama and Mitchell. However things turn out for Lieberman, Netanyahu's government is weaker on Monday then it was Sunday morning. And no matter how one looks at things, a weak government is not good for any diplomatic process. Why, for instance, should the Palestinians now agree to sit down with Netanyahu, and why should the Arab states agree to some kind of gestures toward Israel, if they sense the government is weak, that it might either fall or be reconstituted, and that they may in a few months' time have someone more pliable in office? What did Mahmoud Abbas say to The Washington Post earlier this year? That he is in no rush, that his economy is picking up, and that either Netanyahu will fall on his own, or Obama will force him out. Soon after the police announced their decision Sunday afternoon, Foreign Ministry officials began speculating about who would replace Lieberman if he was forced out. Some said Deputy Foreign Minister Ayalon. Others foresaw the return of Silvan Shalom, others said Livni would return. Still others cast their eyes in the direction of Mofaz, something that would only become possible if the "Mofaz Bill," which is expected to come up for its second and third readings in the Knesset on Monday or Tuesday, passes, and it becomes possible for a group of at least seven "rebel" MKs to form its own faction or join another Knesset faction. Any way one looks at things, however, Netanyahu just got weaker, and he will now have to pay much more attention to political survival; more attention to survival, in fact, than to Abbas, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, Mitchell, Jones or even Obama.