Analysis: The perils of playing out of position

FM seen as a illegitimate partner for dialogue.

lieberman netanyahu duo 298 (photo credit: AP/Ariel Jerozolimski [file[)
lieberman netanyahu duo 298
(photo credit: AP/Ariel Jerozolimski [file[)
The current brouhaha over Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s decisionto go around Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman when talking to theTurks raises fascinating political questions about the nature of theNetanyahu-Lieberman relationship, and whether Israel Beiteinu will boltthe coalition.
But it also raises diplomatic questions – namely,what do you do when your foreign minister, either justifiably or not,is not seen as a legitimate partner for dialogue by key countriesaround the world?
Israel and Turkey currently have an objectiveproblem: Their relations are tanking, something that is bad for Israel,bad for Turkey and – the US has determined – bad for Washington as well.
Nowlet’s say you want to do something to salvage those relations, but youhave another problem: Neither the foreign minister, because ofbellicose comments he has made, nor his deputy minister Danny Ayalon,because of his public humiliation of the Turkish envoy in January, isseen as a possible interlocutor by the Turks.
Do you say, “Well,if they won’t talk to Lieberman, we won’t talk to them?” Or, becausethe relationship is worth salvaging, do you say, “They won’t talk toLieberman, but maybe they will talk to someone else,” and then sendthat someone else – in this case Industry, Trade and Labor MinisterBinyamin Ben-Eliezer – to do the talking?
Netanyahu chose thelatter route, but then erred tactically by not informing Lieberman inadvance (the reasons for this tactical glitch remain clouded within theweak explanation of “technical reasons.”)
But the whole episodeshines light on a deeper problem facing the country: It has a foreignminister who – again, justly or unjustly – is shunned by some keycountries in the world, and who is seen by others, such as the US, aslargely irrelevant to the main course on the plate – theIsraeli-Palestinian diplomatic process – because he has voluntarilyremoved himself from the table.
Jordan and Egypt, two countrieswith which Israel has important ties, won’t deal with Lieberman becauseof various comments he has made in the past or because of their ownpreconceived notions of his positions – some of which have, by the way,been badly misrepresented. (For instance, while Lieberman does talkabout moving Israeli Arabs into a Palestinian state, and Jews in thesettlements into Israel, he doesn’t advocate physically moving – orphysically transferring – a soul; rather, he’s for redrawing theborders along ethnic lines so that in a future two-state solution, Jewsare drawn into a Jewish state, and Arabs into a Palestinian one.)
Soright off the bat, Jordan, Egypt and Turkey – not inconsequentialpieces in Israel’s foreign policy puzzle – are taken off Lieberman’slap because they won’t deal with him. Still, one could argue, there isa big, wide world out there, and – as foreign minister – Liebermancould run Israel’s relations with everyone else.
Right, in theory.
In practice, however, Lieberman – by saying last year that he did notbelieve in the efficacy of the current Palestinian-Israeli track, andthat while he would not hinder attempts to find an agreement, he wouldnot be a participant, either – took himself out of the country’s mostimportant diplomatic game.
Lieberman voluntarily said he wouldn’t deal with the Palestinian issue.But still, the issue has to be dealt with, which explains why lastweek, when Defense Minister Ehud Barak went to Washington, he met withUS Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton,Defense Secretary Robert Gates and a host of others, and why whenLieberman went to New York last month, he met with the Conference ofPresidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Barak, for the American administration, is a player because he dealswith the Israeli-Palestinian issue (and also because his position iscloser to theirs than anyone else’s in the government); Lieberman isnot, because he has said he doesn’t believe in the game.
This brings us to the original sin. If Lieberman, because of hispositions and past statements, is not seen by much of the world as apartner for dialogue, and if, because of his own convictions, hedoesn’t want to deal with the Palestinian-Israeli track as it iscurrently configured, why exactly is he foreign minister? Why isn’t heinterior minister, or public security minister, or nationalinfrastructures minister, or even – as he has been in the past –strategic affairs minister?
The answer is obvious: politics. The prestigious and influentialForeign Ministry is the position that he demanded way back in March2009 to join the government, and all the other portfolios are notweighty enough for the head of the coalition’s second-largest party.
But by acceding to this demand, Netanyahu made the same fatal errorthat his predecessor Ehud Olmert made three years earlier when heappointed Amir Peretz as defense minister: He created a governmentmanned by key people playing out of position. And, as any baseball fanwill attest, when you have the wrong people in the wrong positions,it’s just a matter of time before critical errors are committed.