When diplomacy becomes pyromania

Liberman’s main use for the foreign ministry is to build his electoral constituency at Netanyahu’s expense.

Avigdor Liberman's acquittal in early November on charges of fraud and breach of trust may be good news for the government – but his return to the Foreign Ministry is seriously bad news for Israel.
For one, his blunt, aggressive style plays into the hands of Israel’s detractors. Worse, under Liberman there is virtually no chance of a creative foreign policy that could advance peacemaking and enhance Israel’s global standing.
A recent contretemps with South Africa’s Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana- Mashabane shows that Liberman has lost none of his acerbic insensitivity. Responding to her sharp criticism of Israel, he urged the entire South African Jewish community to pack their bags and make aliya to avoid the inevitable pogrom whose coming, he said, was only a matter of time. This loose talk is totally divorced from South African reality. It is also highly damaging to a staunchly Zionist Jewish community trying to combine loyalty to Israel with loyalty to the post-apartheid rainbow nation of South Africa.
Under Liberman it is not only diplomacy that suffers. “You see, O earth, how very wasteful we have been,” the poet Shaul Tchernichovsky lamented over the loss of life in war. Over the years many lives have been lost in wars of life and death, and wars of folly. Still, hope for peace sprang eternal. Now it seems the political pyromaniacs are burning even our aspirations for a more normal life. Liberman repeats the Roman motto: “If you want peace, prepare for war.” But he ignores what should be a cardinal rule for Israel and its Foreign Ministry: “If you want peace, prepare, first and foremost, for peace.”
Many political analysts hold that Liberman is the strongest politician in Israel. Everyone knows he wants to be prime minister.
To achieve his goal, he aims to capture the leadership of the right-wing camp, even if it means building public support through a heady concoction of ultra-nationalist legislation that erodes the foundations of Israel’s democracy and undiplomatic bluntness that undermines its foreign relations.
To challenge Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Liberman needs a high-profile base. The Foreign Ministry gives him that.
But to judge from past experience, he won’t take back areas of foreign policy responsibility Netanyahu appropriated for himself or handed out to other cabinet ministers. The United States, Europe, China and the Iranian nuclear issue will remain under the prime minister’s direct control, with assistance from Minister for Intelligence and Strategic Affairs Yuval Steinitz; the negotiations with the Palestinians will stay with Justice Minister Tzipi Livni; and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon will continue to deal with Egypt and Jordan.
In his previous stint as foreign minister, foreign policy didn’t exactly interest Liberman either. The one major area the ministry has always retained is PR. In Liberman’s absence it was handled with no little success by his deputy, Ze’ev Elkin. This is Liberman’s long arm – the arm of propaganda.
He uses aggressive PR towards the nations of the world to stir the Israeli electorate, especially the young. In other words, his main use for the foreign ministry is to build his electoral constituency at Netanyahu’s expense.
The Foreign Ministry has always had an excellent professional staff to serve the decision-makers. But the majority feels ill at ease with an approach that prioritizes aggressive PR over groundbreaking diplomacy. The focus on PR bordering on propaganda precludes the kind of flexible and creative thinking it would take to produce a workable blueprint for an Israeli Palestinian peace based on two states for two peoples.
But continued living by the sword is the pyromaniacs’s trump card. Netanyahu and Liberman are locked in a paralyzing embrace. The former is a greater Israel ideologue, pushing for regional hegemony; the latter the architect of a new Israeli nationalism, seeking political hegemony at home.
And both the Foreign Ministry and, worse, Israel are paying the price.
Ilan Baruch, a former Israeli ambassador to South Africa, is an adviser to Meretz Chairperson Zahava Galon.