My Word: Lieberman’s core issues

The foreign minister claims he is ‘unwilling to tolerate falsehoods’ but continues to present a foreign policy with which he clearly doesn’t agree.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman 311 (do not publish again) (photo credit: Flash 90)
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman 311 (do not publish again)
(photo credit: Flash 90)
He’s the right-wing person in the wrong job. Avigdor Lieberman is arguably the leastdiplomatic foreign minister Israel has ever had. He’s also incredibly unpolitically correct for a modern politician. To his credit, it has been said that were WikiLeaks ever to publish the contents of his private conversations, they would reveal nothing he hasn’t already said in public. For example: He famously once declared that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak could “go to hell.”
Which brings me back to my opening point. Lieberman is a good politician, a hardworking minister and in utterly the wrong job. As national infrastructures minister, he was a typical “bulldozer,” able to cut through bureaucracy. Ditto when he held the Transportation portfolio. But when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu appointed him foreign minister, it made as much sense as when Ehud Olmert placed social-affairs activist Amir Peretz in the defense minister’s seat (just pre-Lebanon II), and I suspect it didn’t take Netanyahu long to realize it either.
Lieberman is no stranger to bad press. Newspapers regularly refer to him as “Russian” (actually he was born in Moldova and made aliya more than three decades ago). They also remind readers that he once worked as a bouncer, neglecting to mention that it was at a student club while studying at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
He hates being called Yvet, although it is how he is generally known by both Left and Right.
Stories about from where the nickname came vary: Some say it was his given name in the former Soviet Union; I’m pretty sure it was bestowed (or revived) by Tzachi Hanegbi during their wild student days when they were friends and political allies. (Lieberman has been known to joke that his job at the club was Hanegbi’s “first political appointment,” which probably does not make Hanegbi smile, considering he was recently forced to leave the Knesset after being convicted of perjury following a long trial for suspected cronyism in the Environment Ministry.) Lieberman also quipped that when he wasn’t called in for questioning over the Holyland affair, he grew worried that maybe he had suddenly become irrelevant.
Indeed, the first time I met Lieberman was while he was serving as director-general of the PMs Office during Netanyahu’s first term, in 1996, and he called a press conference over the latest twist in an investigation he was undergoing. I don’t remember the details of which particular investigation it was – there have been so many – but I do recall trying to figure out just how much of his description of the police investigator I could publish in a family newspaper. As I’ve noted, a diplomat he is not. He did come across, however, as someone smart, funny (albeit in a crude way) and surprisingly intellectual.
That Lieberman is still under investigation as we kiss 2010 good-bye says a lot – none of it good – about both the minister and the exceedingly slow pace of the Israeli legal system. If the wheels of justice were to grind any more slowly, the movement would be imperceptible.
Perversely, the ongoing police inquiries might actually add to his appeal among potential voters who feel “the system” is against them. They do not, however, do anything for his standing in the international arena.
AND THIS is not the only problem regarding Lieberman’s service (or disservice) as foreign minister. He does not see eye to eye with Netanyahu – unless, of course, that’s how you describe them glaring at each other.
Lieberman, who is also deputy prime minister and head of Israel Beiteinu, doesn’t so much pick his battles as pick fights. As fast as Netanyahu can perform a juggling act and either divert attention from an issue or at least relieve the tension, Lieberman is creating a new crisis.
A week ago, for instance, Netanyahu was clearly trying to heal the rift with Turkey before it’s too late, but during an annual meeting of ambassadors and consuls-general at the Foreign Ministry on December 26, Lieberman (verbally) attacked Ankara.
“What I am not willing to tolerate,” he said, “is all kinds of lies and false promises that we hear from time to time, also from the prime minister [Recep Tayyip Erdogan] who visits Lebanon and threatens Israel that he will not sit with folded arms, and I also heard last night all the lies and false promises of the Turkish foreign minister.”
His Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoglu, deserved the reprimand, having claimed – despite all evidence to the contrary – that Israel would not have rushed to help Turkey in a humanitarian crisis the way Turkey sent aid during the Carmel forest fire. But even in the post-WikiLeaks era, he could have chosen to send a strongly phrased letter of complaint rather than blast a counterpart in such a public forum.
Similarly, while Netanyahu is still trying to negotiate a two-state solution with the Palestinians, Lieberman is openly stating that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is not a partner in peace and that it would be “impossible under present conditions” to reach a comprehensive agreement with the PA.
Strangely, even many on the Left agree with Lieberman that a comprehensive agreement is unlikely if not impossible, but that’s where Lieberman’s ability to think outside the box could come in most useful.
His blueprint calls for Israel’s borders to be redrawn so that Arab towns near the West Bank would become part of a Palestinian state, while Jewish settlement blocs would become part of Israel.
The idea of a population transfer by moving borders rather than people would probably have been better received had any political leader on the Left suggested it – and had Lieberman not led the call for a “loyalty oath.”
He is, in his own words, “a pragmatist.” He’s certainly not, despite his image, a classic racist.
You will not find him publishing letters – unlike certain rabbis – calling for a ban on renting or selling property to Arabs or (unlike certain rabbis’ wives) ranting about “Jewish girls” being corrupted by Arab men.
But for a man who says he is “unwilling to tolerate falsehoods,” it seems strange he should have put himself (and kept himself) in a position in which he is meant to present a foreign policy with which he clearly does not agree.
If he intends on keeping the post, however, instead of stirring up more controversy, Lieberman might consider putting his considerable mind to solving the problems within his ministry where staff have been on strike and have taken to wearing T-shirts with the slogan “I’m a poor diplomat.”
Similarly, the disagreements between the foreign minister and prime minister are preventing necessary appointments being made. Instead of taking Gilad Erdan out of the Environmental Protection Ministry, where he has been doing an excellent job, to name him ambassador to the UN, it would make more sense to turn the temporary appointment of envoy Meron Reuben – a professional, experienced, English-speaking diplomat – into a long-term position. That job, after all, is a test of real diplomatic skills.
Incidentally, for those who enjoy harping on Lieberman’s bouncer past, as far as I know, he was almost immediately promoted to club manager. The tough-talking party leader had a meteoric rise.
No wonder he became a shooting star.

The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.