Reality check: Avigdor Liberman and Syria

Netanyahu is correct in determining that Israel should play no overt role in the unfolding of the Syrian civil war and that any declaration on the part of Israel is likely to boomerang against us.

Liberman 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Liberman 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
The one bright spot amid all the confusion surrounding Syria is the fact that Avigdor Liberman, at least for the moment, is no longer Israel’s foreign minister. Barred from taking up this position until the court rules whether or not he corruptly appointed a lackey to the post of Israel’s ambassador to Latvia, we have thankfully been spared the prospect of this diplomatic pyromaniac dancing around the chemical fires burning in Damascus.
As foreign minister in the last government, Liberman was a national embarrassment. After he crudely contradicted Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s speech to the United Nations in 2010 concerning the Middle East process, the Prime Minister’s Office was forced to take the unprecedented step of saying the foreign minister’s speech did not reflect Israel’s official position.
Further away from home, while visiting Moscow, Liberman’s unqualified support for Vladimir Putin’s 2011 election victory, which he termed “absolutely fair, free and democratic,” had the rest of the world’s electoral observers scratching their heads in astonishment.
Not, of course, that Liberman’s sucking up to the Russian strongman has had any beneficial effect for Israel in terms of Moscow’s Middle East policies. In fact, Liberman’s whole tenure as foreign minister in the previous government was one gigantic waste of time. A persona non grata in much of the western world due to the outrageously racist Yisrael Beytenu election campaign he spearheaded, Liberman spent his days tramping around Eastern Europe and South America, failing to drum up any support for his futile attempts to block Palestinian recognition at the United Nations.
The idea of Liberman now strolling the international stage on behalf of Israel at such a sensitive time is the stuff of diplomatic nightmares. As chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, the Yisrael Beytenu leader does have some status, but thankfully not enough to make his recent remarks criticizing the West the source of any real embarrassment to Jerusalem.
Defying Netanyahu’s orders to cabinet ministers to remain silent on the Syrian issue, Liberman used the occasion of his party’s Rosh Hashanah celebration to launch a blistering attack on US President Barack Obama’s decision to seek Congress’ approval for a strike on Syria. Liberman first off all blasted the West for the fact that “100,000 people were massacred in a neighboring country, Syria, and the world continues to talk,” and he then went on to threaten the world, particularly Damascus and the Hezbollah stronghold of the Dahiya neighborhood in Beirut, with the consequences of Israel being dragged into the Syrian conflict.
THESE UNNECESSARY remarks not only highlight Liberman’s unsuitability for any future return to the Foreign Ministry but also, by contrast, the prime minister’s careful and sensible handling of the current crisis.
Netanyahu is correct in determining that Israel should play no overt role in the unfolding of the Syrian civil war and that any declaration on the part of Israel is likely to boomerang against us.
Netanyahu’s immediate slapping down of Construction and Housing Minister Uri Ariel for the minister’s comments on his Facebook page that they were “opening the champagne bottles” in Tehran following Obama’s Rose Garden speech was the action of a prime minister with a clear agenda.
The present crisis, Netanyahu told his ministers, demanded “strict, central management,” which was the way “responsible” governments operated. And, knowing exactly the type of person he has sitting around the cabinet table with him, Netanyahu further commented: “I ask you to refrain from acting carelessly and irresponsibly toward our ally in order to get a momentary headline.”
Wisely, the prime minister is following his own advice, restricting himself to bland comments that Israel is prepared for any eventuality or that the country’s enemies “have very good reasons not to test our strength.” Netanyahu knows there is no advantage to be gained by Israel in becoming part of the conflict or from sniping at the West’s inaction from the sidelines.
Just as Yitzhak Shamir put ideology aside during the first Gulf War and refused to retaliate for the Iraqi Scud missiles which hit Israel so as not to harm Washington’s attempts to build an international coalition against Saddam Hussein, Netanyahu is right to lower Israel’s profile in this particular crisis. All around us, the Arab world is undergoing profound change, the results of which it is too early to predict.
There are times when the best policy is one of inaction, which is Netanyahu’s default mode. In terms of our relations with the Palestinians, such inactivity is a mistake, but with regard to the handling of the Syrian crisis, the prime minister is executing this policy impressively. His cabinet colleagues and political allies should learn to follow suit and keep their comments and thoughts strictly to themselves.The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.