Lieberman gives Netanyahu no choice

If PM is truly bent on advancing a two-state solution, he must have someone at the head of diplomatic hierarchy who shares that goal.

Repeatedly since taking office, through public statements and actions, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has made it clear that he sees the Palestinian Authority as a potential partner for peace. In his June 2009 Bar-Ilan University speech, Netanyahu communicated his willingness to enter negotiations that would lead to the creation of a demilitarized Palestinian state that would coexist in peace alongside Israel. Netanyahu subsequently entered indirect, and later direct, talks with PA President Mahmoud Abbas in an apparently sincere effort to reach an accord. He did this after acquiescing to a US demand to freeze building in the West Bank as a confidence-building measure that would facilitate these talks.
While Netanyahu’s critics on the Left claimed that the prime minister was only paying lip service to the idea of substantive negotiations with the PA, he was explicit that this was not the case. During a speech in Washington at the beginning of September, when direct talks between the sides began, Netanyahu declared before the watching world, “President Abbas, you are my partner in peace. It is up to us to overcome the agonizing conflict between our peoples and to forge a new beginning.”
The prime minister has also recently redoubled efforts to heal the gaping diplomatic rift with Turkey. In the heat of the Carmel fires earlier this month, after Ankara rapidly proffered firefighting help, he spoke by telephone with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, publicly expressed his gratitude for the assistance, and promised that Israel would find a way to demonstrate its appreciation. Shortly after the inferno was brought under control, Netanyahu shuttled senior diplomat Joseph Ciechanover to Geneva to meet Turkish Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioglu in an evident good faith attempt to repair the damages caused by the Mavi Marmara debacle. Plainly Israel, under Netanyahu, wanted to do what could be logically expected of it to improve relations with an important Middle East ally.
YET ON Sunday, during an annual meeting of ambassadors and consul-generals at the Foreign Ministry, these two sets of government foreign policy principles were publicly undermined by the man charged with advancing them. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman presented an outlook that contradicted the prime minister’s thinking and actions in both the Palestinian and the Turkish arenas.
Of the Abbas-led PA, Lieberman stated: “We have to understand that there is a government there that is not legitimate.” For this reason, he said, it would be folly to sign an agreement with the PA right now. In any case, he also said, contradicting Netanyahu’s declared assessments, it would be “impossible under present conditions” to reach a comprehensive agreement with the PA.
Lieberman also lashed out at Turkey, branding statements by Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who risibly claimed over the weekend that Israel would not have rushed to help Turkey in a humanitarian crisis, “lies” and “false promises.”
Essentially, Lieberman was branding the untold hours of Netanyahu-led preparations, flight time, planning, meetings and talks relating to the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating process, not to mention the significant financial and emotional investments, a waste of time. So, too, the effort at delicate diplomatic maneuvering vis-à-vis Ankara.
NETANYAHU’S INITIAL response was strikingly muted. “The position of the government of Israel is solely the one articulated by the prime minister and the one expressed through cabinet decisions,” a government statement asserted on Sunday night.
Some of Lieberman’s sentiments, it might be noted, are not without merit. Many Israelis doubtless share his outrage at the sight of thousands of Turks welcoming the refurbished Mavi Marmara into port in Istanbul on Sunday with cries of “Down with Israel,” and do not, as he put it on Monday, want Israel turned into Turkey’s “punching bag.” Many Israelis are also understandably skeptical about the PA’s peacemaking intentions.
But Netanyahu has set out his assessments and goals publicly, and Lieberman – not for the first time, but notably starkly and resolutely – has now detailed his own conflicting outlook. No self-respecting prime minister can afford to tolerate a foreign minister so publicly at odds with him on such central areas of policy. And Israel cannot afford to live with the confusion.
So long as Lieberman is allowed to stay in his position, it will be suggested that his public statements reflect the prime minister’s own secret beliefs. His presence will also severely undermine the ability of Netanyahu’s government to maintain the trust of the US as an honest negotiator, let alone the trust of the international community or the Palestinians.
If Netanyahu is, as he insists he is, truly bent on advancing the prospects of a two-state solution, he must have someone at the head of his diplomatic hierarchy who shares that goal. The same applies if he wants, as he says he does, to pursue delicate diplomacy with Turkey. Lieberman cannot fulfill that role. From Netanyahu’s own point of view, in light of his own declared assessments and his own stated goals for this coalition, with all the complex implications for his coalition, Lieberman has given him no choice but to fire him.