Lieberman’s Antics

Benjamin Netanyahu’s acquiescence in response to provocative acts by the foreign minister creates the impression of weak leadership and dysfunctional government.

Lieberman Antics (photo credit: Associated Press)
Lieberman Antics
(photo credit: Associated Press)
AS IT TRANSITIONED peacefully into the New Year, Israel faced three looming existential dangers: a military threat fanned by a militant Iran pursuing nuclear weapons; a demographic threat to its Jewish and democratic character exacerbated by continued occupation of Palestinian territories; and a diplomatic threat posed by an intensified campaign of delegitimization that jeopardized its international standing.
Making an already delicate situation worse, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman initiated end of year moves that aggravated all three problem areas. In late December, he subverted a potential reconciliation with Turkey, which might have helped cool the flames of regional radicalization fanned by Iran; in the same senior Foreign Ministry forum, he disparaged peace moves on the Palestinian track, pouring scorn and cold water on American efforts to help end the occupation; and, in early January, his radical right-wing party, Yisrael Beiteinu, sponsored anti-democratic legislation in the Knesset that played into the hands of the delegitimizers.
Lieberman’s antics posed a direct challenge to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu had personally initiated the reconciliation effort with Turkey and formally backed the American-led initiative on the Palestinian track. In taking the opposite tack, Lieberman seemed to be deliberately trying to humiliate the prime minister in a bid to oust him as the natural leader of the Israeli right.
The result was foreign policy confusion, with the prime minister having to state that he, not Lieberman, speaks for Israel.
Moreover, the fact that he allowed Lieberman to stay on as foreign minister created the impression of weak leadership and dysfunctional government. All this impacted on the New Year national mood: countless media articles reflected an Israel buoyed by economic prosperity, but filled with trepidation over an uncertain future.
Analysts argued that the sociopolitical forces unleashed by Lieberman threaten not only Israel’s standing in the world, but the very fabric of its democracy. Some pointed to a spread of the “totalitarian mentality” initially brought in by masses of immigrants from the former Soviet Union and systematically reinforced by Lieberman to extend his power base.
Others cast this as a struggle between Israel’s old democratic elites and newcomers allied with other non-democratic forces challenging for power.
For now, Israel’s democracy seems too deeply ingrained to be overturned. Moreover, Lieberman commands just 15 of the 120 seats in the Knesset. But, clearly, for the forces of democracy in Israel, there is no room for complacency.
With Lieberman rampant, the traditional right under Netanyahu showing weakness, the Labor party sitting with Lieberman in government and the centrist Kadima opposition virtually silent on the Lieberman issue – in other words, with all the major political movements that could check his advance compromised – the question is: Will the nation’s democratic forces find the energy to counter the illiberal threat? And what will the consequences be for Israel’s future if they don’t?
LIEBERMAN’S CONFRONTATIONAL moves against the Turks began exactly a year ago, when, in a calculated insult, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, also a member of Yisrael Beiteinu, deliberately sat the Turkish Ambassador to Israel, Ahmet Oguz Celikkol, on a low stool.
Relations deteriorated further after the Mavi Marmara incident last May, in which eight Turkish citizens and an American of Turkish descent were killed aboard a vessel trying to break Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza. In return for normalization of ties, the Turks demanded an apology and compensation for the victims. After initially rejecting the Turkish conditions, Netanyahu agreed to negotiate.
In December, he sent former Foreign Ministry director Yosef Ciechanover to meet top Turkish officials in Geneva, where they worked out a compromise under which Israel offers a mild apology as well as compensation to the victims’ families and in return Turkey acknowledges that the Israeli commandos who boarded the Mavi Marmara acted in self-defense and waives legal proceedings against them.
As both governments weighed the proposal, Lieberman ensured it would not be accepted by publicly insulting Turkish leaders. “I’m no longer willing to tolerate the lies we hear from Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan,” or those of his foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu, he told Israeli ambassadors from around the world in a meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem.
For good measure, Lieberman also insulted the Palestinians, calling the Palestinian Authority an “illegitimate government,” with which it would be a mistake to conclude an agreement.
Ten days later, in early January, Yisrael Beiteinu sponsored one of two bills (the other was by the Likud’s Dani Danon) calling for the establishment of a parliamentary committee to investigate the funding and activities of a list of left-leaning human rights groups. Left-wing critics accused Lieberman of McCarthyism, arguing that setting up a parliamentary mechanism to hound political opponents was patently undemocratic and recalled the dark days in the US of the early 1950s, with the House Committee for Un-American Activities and Senator Joe McCarthy’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations conducting a public witch-hunt for communist sympathizers.
The left-wingers made two main arguments: Israeli law already requires full transparency on funding, most of the named NGOs are fully transparent, and there is a website that makes all the funding information public. As for activities, like pointing out transgressions by IDF soldiers, they argued that this shows the strength of Israeli democracy and in no way brings the IDF as a whole or the country into disrepute. On the contrary, setting up a McCarthyist parliamentary committee would do far more damage to Israel’s good name, they argued.
ONE OF LIEBERMAN’S MOST outspoken critics is a former associate, Yisrael Hasson, who left Yisrael Beiteinu in 2009 to join Kadima.
Hasson accuses Lieberman of conducting foreign policy like a rugby player in a Japanese ballet class, cynically using foreign policy bluster as a tool to enhance domestic political support.
“He is spending our hard-earned foreignpolicy currency to pay for his electioneering,” Hasson tells The Report.
According to Hasson, Lieberman is a “foreign policy pyromaniac,” with a license from an irresponsible prime minister to start fires all over the place. In his view, what makes this particularly dangerous is that it comes in the context of the campaign to delegitimize Israel: The fires Lieberman starts can turn the uncommitted middle of the roaders against Israel, creating a critical mass for delegitimization and isolation.
Indeed, Hasson compares the delegitimization campaign to a forest fire, and warns that with Lieberman’s help it could quickly get out of control. “You think you know how to estimate the speed the fire spreads, but then suddenly it leaps another two hundred meters.”
Referring to the wave of recognition of the Palestinian state that began in Brazil, Hasson continues, “Some sudden unanticipated outside event could take the fire that started in South America and blow it into Europe at the speed of light. And we will have no tools to contain it.
We [Lieberman] stand on the podium at the UN and say there is no possibility of an agreement with the Palestinians. We complicate matters for everyone vis-a-vis the Muslim world.
And we think we won’t have to pay for it. But we will.”
To some pundits, Lieberman’s actions seemed so outrageously inimical to Israeli interests that they made insinuations about his ultimate loyalties. Haaretz’s Ari Shavit quoted a Wiki-leaked cable from the US Embassy in Moscow in which political counselor Alice Wells observes that Lieberman’s June 2009 visit to the Russian capital “cemented Moscow’s impression that the Russian-speaking Lieberman is one of their own.” The cable also cites Yuval Fuchs, an Israeli Embassy official, who told the Americans that Lieberman, who was born in the Soviet Union and came to Israel when he was 20, conducted his top-level meetings in Russian, smoked and swapped stories about Moscow. “The Israeli FM ‘behaved like an old friend,’ commented Fuchs, who thought the Russians acted as if they already knew him,” Wells reported.
Most on the left, however, reject the loyalty insinuations as totally unfounded. “I don’t buy these conspiracy theories,” says Roman Bronfman, a veteran Russian immigrant and former left-wing Knesset member. “But I think Lieberman’s goal is to take power at all costs, by any possible means. And the price he sets is one we should not accept, because it comes at the cost of our democracy,” he declares.
Bronfman, who is writing a book with journalist Lily Galili on the second large wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union which began in 1989, accuses Lieberman of building on the fears, xenophobia, insecurities and “totalitarian mentality” of this large group to gain power. “What he does is to make repeated attacks on democratic values from the law enforcement system to the rights of minorities, while creating a general sense of insecurity. Look at his relations with Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and the Palestinians. His tactics remind us of very dark regimes. But he is not mainly to blame. The prime culprit is the prime minister who keeps him on as foreign minister,” Bronfman tells The Report.
Indeed, Bronfman sees some of the classic conditions for the rise of authoritarianism: weakness of the traditional right, impotence of social democracy and a society beset by perceived threats and insecurities. “If we don’t have a change of government soon, our democratic values will not retain their primacy.
The future looks extremely bleak,” he warns.
Compounding the current government’s problems is a growing sense that its internal contradictions are making it increasingly dysfunctional.
Besides the Lieberman-Netanyahu conflict over foreign policy, Lieberman’s own Foreign Ministry has not been fully functional since January 2010. Since then there have been three rounds of fruitless workers’ sanctions over abysmal pay conditions. The latest, which is ongoing, has already led to the cancellation of several top-level visits to Israel, most dramatically that of Russian President Dmitri Medvedev. A mid-February visit by German Chancellor Angela Merkel is also under threat.
In addition, Foreign Ministry officials in embassies across the globe have stopped writing diplomatic cables or issuing tourist visas, and are taking undisclosed measures they say could ultimately impact on Israeli security interests. “Israel is fighting delegitimization and the Iranian bomb, but the diplomats are no longer on the front line,” Hanan Goder, head of the ministry’s diplomatic workers’ committee, tells The Report.
GIVEN HIS DIFFERENCES WITH Lieberman and the foreign minister’s defiance of his authority, the big question is why Netanyahu hasn’t fired him. Some pundits say the prime minister fears he would lose his ruling majority; others that he fears Lieberman in opposition would constitute an even graver challenge for leadership of the right.
But there is also another more subtle theory: that Lieberman is a useful front for Netanyahu, subverting a peace process the prime minister doesn’t really want, and alienating Israeli Arabs in a way that will deter them from becoming a political force allied to the Zionist left.
Either way, the end result has been reinforcement of the perception of Netanyahu as a weak prime minister, and a boost for Lieberman.
Last summer Netanyahu had a chance to drop Lieberman and lead Israel in a very different direction. Opposition Kadima leader Tzipi Livni offered to join his coalition instead of Lieberman and on condition that he make genuine peace moves. Had he accepted Livni’s offer, Netanyahu might have been hailed internationally as a great peacemaking leader. That he didn’t seems to indicate either fear of Lieberman in opposition or reluctance to really move forward on peace – or both.
Lieberman’s presence in the government, his anti-democratic moves and the lack of progress in the peace process have led to mounting pressure on the Labor party to pull out of the governing coalition and spark a process that could lead to new elections. Within the next several weeks the party convention is expected to meet to decide on a date for leadership primaries and whether or not to stay on in Netanyahu’s government.
Senior party figures – like would-be challengers for the top spot, Yitzhak Herzog, the minister of Welfare and Social Services, and Avishay Braverman, the minister for Minority Affairs, as well as party strongman Binyamin Ben Eliezer – are all predicting an early Labor pullout.
Others, however, are skeptical. Dissident Labor Knesset Member Daniel Ben Simon argues that party leader Ehud Barak does not want peace any more than Netanyahu, does not have any real issues with Lieberman and is too addicted to power to allow a pullout from government that would cost him his job as defense minister. “The truth is that there is a feeling these days that we have finally made it. We have natural gas, real estate and fascistic legislation and there is no danger of peace threatening us,” Ben Simon says bitterly. “And when history comes to judge us on this period, on the harm we have done to the Zionist project, it will judge the Labor party very harshly. Like in other dark regimes, we have allowed evil to flourish,” he tells The Report. So disappointed is Ben Simon in the Labor leadership that he is thinking of leaving the party and setting up a one-man faction.
“I don’t want my name next to those who gave legitimacy to what is happening in the country. I want to save my soul,” he declares.
Rather than in the political arena, Lieberman’s fate could be decided in the law courts.
Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein will soon have to decide whether to indict the outspoken foreign minister on a host of serious charges, including bribery, fraud in aggravated circumstances, breach of trust by a public official, obstruction of justice, harassing a witness and money-laundering. Lieberman is suspected of having received a total of 10 million shekels ($2.8m.) from two tycoons, Martin Schlaff and Michael Cherney, funneled through foreign straw companies. His daughter Michal and a lawyer representing Lieberman are also suspected of being involved.
In late October, Weinstein reportedly told the team working on the case that he saw no choice but to indict. Both the police and the state prosecution had earlier recommended filing charges, but the prosecutors are apparently still working on supplementary evidence.
One way or another, it seems the new year will be a decisive one for Avigdor Lieberman and Yisrael Beiteinu. And what happens with Lieberman could have major consequences for Israel and the region as a whole.