Washington Watch: Might Lieberman be the Arab world's best friend?

His inaugural speech ignited what could become the worst crisis in US-Israel relations in 20 years.

douglas bloomfield224.88 (photo credit: )
douglas bloomfield224.88
(photo credit: )
Even those who expected friction between the Obama and Netanyahu governments over pursuing Israeli-Arab peace were surprised that it came so quickly. About 20 minutes, by one count. Tzhat's how long it took Israel's new foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, to scrap the US-led Annapolis peace talks on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, take the Golan Heights off the negotiating table with Syria, and reject the long-standing concept of land for peace, threatening a US-Israel rift if his government turns that rhetoric into policy. Lieberman's pronouncements, along with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's rejection of the two-state approach and word that he is reconsidering support for the international road map for Mideast peace, could set Jerusalem and Washington on a collision course. President Barack Obama quickly fired a warning shot across Bibi's bow. "Let me be clear: the United States strongly supports the goal of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security," he said. That was followed by an announcement that special Mideast envoy George Mitchell will be going to the region "to advance the goal of the two-state solution." Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan quickly shot back that "Israel does not take orders from Obama." Just cash. LIEBERMAN'S inaugural speech ignited what could become the worst crisis in US-Israel relations in nearly 20 years. Netanyahu's non-response - other than repeating his desire for "a just and lasting peace" - in the wake of the firestorm created by Lieberman's incendiary remarks was seen as approval. An Israeli Foreign Ministry official told me, "Is he saying what Bibi really thinks but won't say out loud? We don't know, but so far Bibi hasn't rebuked or retracted" anything. Lieberman, who was Netanyahu's chief of staff during the latter's first term as prime minister, said concessions to the Arabs "just invite pressure, and more and more wars. If you want peace, prepare for war." With declarations like that and his reputation as a racist who wants to drive out Israel's Arab citizens, Lieberman may be the best thing that has happened to pro-Arab lobbying in Washington since Yasser Arafat died. But for the Jews he's bad news. A recent survey for J Street, the Jewish "pro-peace, pro-Israel" lobby, conducted by Jim Gerstein, a Democratic strategist, showed Obama is "considerably more popular" among American Jews than Netanyahu by a 73-58 margin, and Lieberman's views are "resoundingly rejected by American Jews." The cornerstone of pro-Israel lobbying for more than 60 years has been Israel's yearning for peace in the face of Arab threats to destroy it. Israel, we've been taught and have taught others, is willing to take great risks, endure major sacrifices and accept painful compromises while the other side has insisted on its unrealistic and uncompromising demands. Israel has ridden that image, despite occasional ups and downs, to a position of great strength in America and especially on Capitol Hill. After Lieberman's declarations and Netanyahu's so-far lack of a convincing commitment to peace, Israel risks being branded an obstacle to peace. There is a hard-core element in the Jewish community that will support Israel do or die, but the J Street data shows that fewer and fewer under 30 will, said Gerstein. Their grandparents forged their ties with Israel during the vulnerable years of its birth and struggle for survival; their parents are of the post-1967 generation that grew up knowing the muscular Israel anxious to make peace. The 21st-century Jews see a different Israel, said a prominent pro-Israel lobbyist. "They see oppression, excess use of force and arrogance," he said. For many of them it is no longer the center of their Jewish identity. Gerstein's survey revealed "a great deal of alienation" among younger Jews from traditional Jewish organizations, which they don't feel necessarily represent their views on issues like peace and relations with the Arabs. The broader non-organizational Jewish community is "overwhelmingly progressive" and likely to support pressure on both Israel and the Arabs to advance the peace process. Particularly noteworthy was a finding that political contributors, a cornerstone of pro-Israel lobbying, are more progressive, more Democratic and more supportive of the US playing an assertive role supporting peace. Lieberman leaves the impression Israel is in full retreat from the peace table. The greater this ex-bouncer's influence, especially regarding relations with the Arabs, the lower Israel's standing will sink. He could do what the Arabs and their supporters could only dream of - drive a wedge between Americans and Israel. Netanyahu will have an opportunity to set the record straight next month when he is expected in Washington to speak to the AIPAC policy conference and meet with President Obama. He will have to make a convincing case not only to the AIPAC faithful (an easy sell) but to the American people and their president that his government is committed to peace in more than vague rhetoric. The future of pro-Israel activism and the quality of the bilateral relationship could depend on it.