Needed: A real foreign minister

Avigdor Lieberman has made enemies in so many capitals, it’s a good thing he doesn’t really have any power.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman 311 (R) (photo credit: Ronen Zvulun / Reuters)
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman 311 (R)
(photo credit: Ronen Zvulun / Reuters)
There are times when one person accuses another of the very things he himself is guilty of. For example, take Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s latest attacks on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
He called the Palestinian leader the “greatest obstacle” to Middle East peace and said his resignation would be a “blessing” because Abbas is not seeking “compromise, but [rather] to incite friction and conflict.”
Hence, “there will be no [peace] agreement” so long as Palestinians are led by a man who is “sacrificing” his people’s interests for his own.
Lieberman’s message, which the Foreign Ministry shared with dozens of foreign embassies in Israel, sounds a lot like the ambitious foreign minister talking about himself.
Predictably, Palestinians took great umbrage over Lieberman’s incendiary rhetoric but then proceeded to undercut their own credibility when an Abbas spokesman called Lieberman the “most extreme, racist person in Israel” and “an enemy of peace.” Others accused the Lieberman of incitement and said his words were tantamount to a call to assassinate Abbas.
They demanded a formal apology from the Netanyahu government, but the Prime Minister’s Office was silent. Israeli media reported Lieberman’s diatribe was made and distributed without the knowledge of the prime minister or other top government officials, so it was left for President Shimon Peres to try to clean up after the bombastic Lieberman, saying Abbas and his prime minister, Salam Fayyad, are “serious leaders who want peace and are working to prevent violence and extremism in our areas.”
Netanyahu’s silence is consistent with his longstanding fear of Lieberman, his former protégé and likely future challenger, but the silence that came from Washington was more puzzling. Perhaps the Obama administration doesn’t take Lieberman seriously so considered it better not to respond. Perhaps the silence can be attributed to unhappiness that Abbas has abandoned direct peace talks in favor of a unilateral membership applications at the United Nations General Assembly, UNESCO, the World Health Organization and other agencies.
In Washington’s view, Abbas’ unilateralist strategy is a serious setback to the chances for peace and his goal of statehood; to the Palestinian leader, it is the only option left in the face of the Netanyahu government’s growing dependence on Israeli extremists who oppose Palestinian statehood, period.
NETANYAHU IS said to have made his 1,027-for-1 prisoner swap with Hamas in part to punish Abbas for his ill-advised UN strategy, and he reportedly has turned down recommendations from his military leaders to do something to bolster Abbas’s stature – such as releasing more prisoners or turning over more territory so he can take credit – to offset the political gains Hamas realized in the Schalit deal.
Dov Weissglas, former prime minister Ariel Sharon’s top adviser, accused Netanyahu of repeatedly missing opportunities for peace and called his policy to marginalize the PA “dangerous and stupid.” He endorsed the military’s recommendations and echoed Peres’ comments, calling Abbas and Fayyad the best peace partners Israel has ever had.
Much of the escalating tension with the Palestinians – though by no means all – could have been avoided if Israel had a real foreign minister who isn’t an embarrassment to his professional foreign service, to his government and his country.
Netanyahu has given him a limited portfolio, relegating him largely to backwater capitals – most recently Sarajevo. Forays to the United Nations, Paris, London and other major capitals have brought embarrassment and complaints from leaders there. French President Nicolas Sarkozy told Netanyahu “you must get rid of that man,” according to published reports quoting two Israeli officials.
If Lieberman really were in charge of Israeli diplomacy and lobbying world leaders, like any real foreign minister, the Palestinians’ support at the UN would have been even more overwhelming and Israel even more isolated.
Performances like his latest attacks on Abbas add to the worldwide skepticism that this Israeli government is genuinely committed to peace with the Palestinians.
Lieberman has called for cancellation of the Oslo Accords, annexation of all West Bank settlements and adjacent territory, withholding tax revenues from the PA, evicting the country’s Arab citizens, executing Knesset colleagues who meet with Hamas members, requiring loyalty oaths and scrapping talks with the Palestinians.
So why keep him on? Because, to paraphrase Lyndon Johnson, Netanyahu would rather have Lieberman inside the tent spitting out than outside spitting in.
Lieberman is arguably the single most serious political threat to Netanyahu. The Soviet-born former bar bouncer was Netanyahu’s chief of staff in his first term and now heads the ultra-nationalist Israel Beiteinu party, third largest in the Knesset, representing a burgeoning and increasingly radical Russian refugee population. His strategy is to outflank Netanyahu from the right to show that he is the real leader of that faction and to call Netanyahu out for buckling under pressure.
There are times when Netanyahu uses the Lieberman threat as an excuse to avoid taking actions he doesn’t really want to take anyway – remove settlers, freeze construction – but that doesn’t make his fear any less genuine.
Lieberman sees himself as the next prime minister, the alternative to Netanyahu and the Likud. As a result, the incumbent’s first priority is getting reelected and that means protecting his right flank by keeping Lieberman and the other rejectionists inside his tent where he can keep an eye on them.
That still gives Lieberman a lot of room to maneuver, hurl insults at Mahmoud Abbas, and push his own agenda.
Lieberman has said there can be no peace with the Palestinians in this generation or the next, and he seems determined to prove that.