'Lieberman as FM may help Russian ties'

But sources say ties with West could suffer; Putin may visit for Sergei's Courtyard ceremony.

liberman 248.88 ariel (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski  [file])
liberman 248.88 ariel
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
If Israel Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman becomes foreign minister, ties with Western Europe may suffer, diplomatic sources said Thursday, adding that Lieberman may place a greater emphasis in the Foreign Ministry on states of the former Soviet Union. The sources said that while Lieberman had been stigmatized in the West as a fascist, his image in Russia was far less problematic. Given his background - he was born in Moldavia - he was likely to place more prominence on ties with the Eastern European countries, especially if he was blackballed in the West because of his views. The sources said Lieberman was widely seen in the West as someone with ultranationalist and extreme views, and that his call on Israeli Arabs to pledge loyalty to the state would make it very difficult for him in European capitals. One ambassador for a European country considered very friendly to Israel said that not only the loyalty oath issue, but also his proposal to redraw the borders to exclude Arabs from Israel, while drawing inside Israel Jews in the territories, was anathema to Europeans. "You can't just do something like that without asking the people involved," the envoy said. "Europeans can't accept that." One Israeli diplomatic source said that considering the baggage Lieberman would bring with him to the job, he would have to take steps from the first day to convince the world that he was not what they thought. He has already begun taking such steps, giving an interview to The Washington Post in which he said that he would continue the peace process and even be willing to leave his Nokdim settlement "if there really will be a two-state solution." But, he added, "What does the leader of the Israeli Arabs say? They're not interested in any Palestinian state. Even the Palestinians aren't interested in a Palestinian state." Another diplomatic official said that the world would get used to Lieberman as foreign minister, just as it got used to Ariel Sharon, who had a very extreme image when he became foreign minister in 1998, during the first Binyamin Netanyahu government. "One should also not forget," the official said, "that since David Ben-Gurion's days, the relationship with America, and the diplomatic process, were dealt with by the prime minister." If Lieberman were to place a greater emphasis on Russia, he would be dealing with fertile ground, as diplomatic officials say relations with Moscow have been on a marked upturn over the last few months, despite disagreements between Moscow and Jerusalem over how to deal with the Iranian nuclear issue. The officials said Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was considering coming to Israel in May to take part in a ceremony marking the completion of the refurbishment of Sergei's Courtyard in Jerusalem, a visit they said would give concrete expression to the strength of Israeli-Russian ties. Sources in the Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv would not confirm the visit, but said there were "rumors" about the matter. Putin was last in Israel in 2005, as Russia's president. Refurbishment in the historic compound began last month. In October, the cabinet approved the transfer of its ownership to the Russian government, culminating years of discussions with Moscow about the matter, initiated by Putin when he was Russia's president. A visit by Putin to "rededicate" the building would bring the issue to a close, the officials said. The officials pointed out that earlier this week Russian President Dmitry Medvedev went to the southern Italian city of Bari to receive a symbolic key to Italy's Russian Orthodox Church from Italian President Giorgio Napolitano. Like the transfer of the Sergei Compound in Jerusalem, the handover of the church in Bari was agreed upon in 2007. These types of measures are extremely important for the Russians, one Israeli official said, because they represent in their eyes the restoration of these sites to their rightful status. The cabinet decision in October was taken just before Prime Minister Ehud Olmert went to Russia in an effort to keep Moscow from selling state-of-the-art S-300 anti-missile systems to Iran. The Russians have yet to sell Teheran the weapons systems, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, during a visit to Jerusalem in February, said that Russia would not sell the system to any country in the region. The assessment in Jerusalem is that the sale of the S-300 is now a card in the Russian-American relations, with Moscow wanting to use it as leverage in getting the US to back away from plans to deploy its own missile defense system in Eastern Europe. Earlier this week it was reported that President Barack Obama offered in a letter to Medvedev to link US plans for missile defense in Eastern Europe to Russian help in halting the Iranian nuclear march. The S-300s, according to the Israeli diplomatic official, should be seen as part of the overall discussions between the US and Russia on a wide gamut of issues. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is scheduled to meet with Lavrov in Geneva on Friday night, where all these issues were expected to be addressed. According to Israeli officials, a number of Israeli policies - in addition to the transfer of the Sergei Compound - have significantly improved ties with Russia. These steps include: • Israel's public stance during the crisis in Ossetia in September, when Moscow praised Israel's "balanced" position. • Israel's policy of not selling weapons to Georgia or any other countries in the region that could break the strategic balance. • Israel's policy of not recognizing the independence of Kosovo. • The close sharing of information between the two countries. Israel's decision to no longer require visas for Russian visitors has also been very positively received in Russia. Currently, there are only a few countries where Russians do not need visas, including Thailand, Turkey and Egypt.