The PM-FM blow-up: Confrontation or mechanism?

Lieberman has served Netanyahu well by placing into the public debate cautions and concerns the prime minister himself doesn’t dare to utter.

lieberman netanyahu duo 298 (photo credit: AP/Ariel Jerozolimski [file[)
lieberman netanyahu duo 298
(photo credit: AP/Ariel Jerozolimski [file[)
When the Netanyahu government was formed, the Israeli media was filled with predictions of how long it would be before Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman would be forced to resign to face criminal charges and whether his departure would signal a coalition re-shuffling or a new government altogether. Just shy of two years later, Lieberman remains in his post.
Based on media references, the uninformed might believe he serves as Israel’s “controversial” rather than “foreign” minister. During his tenure, Lieberman has filled the role of lightning rod for international angst, espousing what his supporters see as common sense, diplo-speak-free solutions that his detractors see as racist and anti-peace. And while he has no shortage of critics, Lieberman has amassed a significant cadre of boosters along the way. Typical of the Lieberman-Netanyahu dialectic, when the prime minister speaks of the nation’s commitment to the US-brokered peace process, the foreign minister will assert the futility of the talks and disparage the legitimacy of Israel’s Palestinian negotiating partners. Some have suggested that far from presenting a dysfunctional point-counterpoint between prime minister and foreign minister, Lieberman has served the PM well by placing into the public debate cautions and concerns Netanyahu himself doesn’t dare to utter for fear of upsetting a delicate balance with his American patrons.
AGAINST THIS background, the recent blow-up between Netanyahu and Lieberman presents intriguing permutations.
It’s no-doubt irritating to the anti-Lieberman crowd that, like it or not, the Moldovan émigré offers plans rather than ad hominem attacks to back up his positions. This, of course, fuels speculation that his outbursts are more coordinated with the Prime Minster’s Office than is let on. While Lieberman is often tarred with the “racist” epithet for suggesting a transfer of population, successive Israeli-Palestinian negotiating teams have accepted in-principle the idea of several Israeli settlement-blocs remaining after any final agreement inside of territory Israel acquired in the 1967-war; and that compensation would be made to the Palestinians in an equal amount of territory now located inside of pre-1967 Israel. (A detailed rendering of the concept has been painstakingly created under former Ambassador Edward Djerjian’s watch at the James A. Baker III Institute at Rice University in Houston). An objective reading of Lieberman’s plan adds little more than to identify the subject land to be transferred as predominantly Israeli Arab (or Palestinian) communities.
The timing of Lieberman’s most recent outbursts is newfound nourishment for conspiracy theorists. They come amid a stagnant process that the American administration is desperately trying to paint with signs of life and direction. Having given up on the failed formula of cajoling (and even bribing) the parties back to the table, US interlocutors are struggling for believability and capability while the Palestinians’ ”Plan B” – turning to the international community for endorsement of statehood absent Israeli assent – is resonating beyond the expectations of many inside the world of international diplomacy.
What better time for Israel to put forth its own “Plan B” – and one that contains within it a mechanism to forestall a final agreement (which Lieberman says is “impossible” and Netanyahu arguably wants to postpone) – all while covering the points nearest and dearest to PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad: turning over more security responsibility to the Palestinians; improving Palestinians’ freedom of movement; and setting the goal of economic parity between the West Bank and Israel as the trigger for eventual (and consensual) statehood.
After all, had Netanyahu offered the same suggestions, they would have been dismissed no less decisively than they are now but added to the downside would be incalculable collateral damage between Jerusalem and Washington.
Veteran Israeli political junkies will probably dismiss this entire thesis, opting instead to be entertained by predictions of the perfect political storm that will blow away the current government. But stripped of political theatre, what is laid bare could be a Rube Walker-esque system of injecting new ideas into an un-accepting culture of conventional wisdoms. And new ideas – regardless of how they enter the system – trump stagnation.
The writer is executive editor of The Media Line news agency ( He can be reached at