Sarkozy sideshow

Reaction to Sarkozy's meddling is understandable, but it shouldn't distract from more serious challenges.

netanyahu sarkozy 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
netanyahu sarkozy 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Last week in Paris, French President Nicolas Sarkozy told Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to replace Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman with Tzipi Livni. "I'm telling you," he reportedly said, "you need to get rid of that man." That might have been a propitious moment for Netanyahu to recommend that French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner be replaced by Martine Aubry, head of the Socialist Party. Instead, the premier replied, somewhat mealy-mouthed, that Lieberman was actually a nice chap - once you got to know him. No doubt, were Sarkozy directeur des ressources humanines at our Foreign Ministry, the place would take on a different political orientation. Would Golda Meir have gotten his nod? Ariel Sharon? Moshe Arens? Yitzhak Shamir? Unlikely. But it's easier to be contemptuous of Sarkozy's behavior than to address the bigger problems besetting foreign policy under Netanyahu's stewardship. FIRSTLY, WHEN he took office in March, he promised a reassessment of Israel's stance vis-à-vis the Palestinians. Yet he arrived at the White House in May without a plan; and didn't articulate one until his June 14 Bar-Ilan address. In contradistinction to an Obama administration which knew exactly what it wanted, the PM's three months of dawdling proved costly to Israeli interests. Secondly, Netanyahu appointed a foreign minister with a not-undeserved image problem. This newspaper was unenthusiastic about Lieberman's appointment. We strongly urged Tzipi Livni to put country first and join a Netanyahu-led coalition as foreign minister. It was not to be. Some Israelis suspect that when journalists rush to characterize Lieberman as an "ultra-nationalist" and a "settler," or when foreign leaders maintain their discreet boycott against him, they are motivated less by revulsion over the positions of his Israel Beiteinu Party than by the sense that he is a tough negotiator. Yet Lieberman embraced the road map and Netanyahu's Bar-Ilan speech endorsing a two-state solution. Moreover, while some of his election campaign policies merited real concern, his disinclination to pursue those that wouldn't fly with mainstream Israelis underlines that, for all his bombast and past demagoguery, Lieberman is a pragmatic politician. Having made the appointment, Netanyahu ought to be emphatic that Lieberman is a "fact on the ground" - and he made a good beginning on this before the European ambassadorial delegation to Israel on Tuesday. A third problem is that there are too many players engaged in high-stakes foreign policy-making. For instance, we find it curious that Defense Minister Ehud Barak - rather than Lieberman - was tasked with negotiating with US Special Middle East Envoy George Mitchell in New York. After all, the foreign minister met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington last month, and acquitted himself well. Certainly, Mitchell's constitution is no more delicate than Clinton's. Lieberman could have been accompanied by experts from the Defense Ministry to help with any security issues that might have arisen. But the controversy over a total and unconditional settlement freeze is in the purview of foreign, not defense policy. Indeed, it was the Foreign Ministry that disseminated the rather hollow joint statement following the meeting. Nor, anyway, did Barak's presence - as opposed to Lieberman's - charm the pants off Mitchell. A senior White House official told The Washington Post, bluntly: "We have not changed our position at all... Nor has the president authorized any negotiating room." Israel recently appointed the highly capable Michael Oren as its ambassador to Washington. His accreditation is in its final stages. Once that goes through, it would be wise for visiting Netanyahu confidantes to steer clear of meetings with Obama administration officials. It is essential that Oren be recognized as Israel's main voice in the American capital. ISRAELIS' SPLENETIC reaction to Sarkozy's meddling is understandable. Let it not distract us, however, from far more serious challenges. We need decisive, coherent foreign policy leadership at a time of acute sensitivity in the vital relationship between the US and Israel. And Netanyahu needs to work with Lieberman in formulating and articulating Israel's strategic positions - to the administration and beyond.