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The Unlovable Avigdor Lieberman

Avigdor Lieberman's September 28 speech at the UN General Assembly—delivered in English and broadcast live by Al-Jazeera—was not well received at home. Nahum Barnea, the doyen of Israeli left-wing columnists, dismissed his country's foreign minister as a "clown." The editors of Haaretz urged his prompt resignation.

Relevant Links
What Does Lieberman Want?  Shmuel Rosner, Jerusalem Post. Yes, he should have been fired; but the interesting question has to do with his long-range intentions.
A Dose of Truth  P. David Hornik, American Spectator. Netanyahu distanced himself from Lieberman’s speech, but he did not repudiate it outright. Why not?
Listen to Lieberman  Haim Misgav, Yediot Aharanot. Many critics of Lieberman’s peace plan dismissed his UN speech without troubling to read it.

Abroad, the story was much the same. Britain's Daily Telegraph characterized the address as "inflammatory." The Los Angeles Times, dismissing Lieberman as "a West Bank settler" not "committed to peacemaking," looked back nostalgically to Ariel Sharon and Yitzhak Rabin, who would never have allowed a foreign minister to articulate views contradicting government policy. In the paper's judgment, Benjamin Netanyahu was either being duplicitous or manifesting his political enfeeblement in implying that Lieberman's address did not have his backing.

There is no disputing that the speech was "off-message"—diverging from the accommodationist tone Netanyahu has set—or that it was delivered by a widely reviled figure. But did it deserve the opprobrium heaped upon it? And is it true that other Israeli foreign ministers have loyally adhered to the political line set by their premiers?

On the substance, Lieberman's speech began by stating the obvious: Israel's domestic arena is not divisible into those who want peace and those who prefer a Greater Israel. Rather, Israel's majority is divided over how to secure peace. Lieberman also clarified the issue of settlements as a putative obstacle to peace. From 1948 to 1967, he pointed out, the West Bank and Gaza were entirely controlled by the Arabs, and "no one tried to create a Palestinian state" there. Conversely, and notwithstanding the later presence of Jewish settlements in the territories, "peace agreements were achieved with Egypt and Jordan."

What about now? In the absence of real trust between Israelis and Palestinians, and with policy differences as knotty as they are, Lieberman recommended that the parties aim for "a long-term intermediate agreement" rather than an absolute resolution of the conflict in a matter of months. More controversially, he also argued that "the guiding principle for a final-status agreement must not be land-for-peace but rather [an] exchange of populated territory." Pointing to other conflicts involving competing national and religious claims—post-Communist Czechoslovakia and East Timor, for instance—he noted that re-drawing boundaries had eased the way to a resolution. "Let me be very clear," he added. "I am not talking about moving populations, but rather about moving borders to better reflect demographic realities."

On this last point, Lieberman's plan may be geographically unworkable, as the veteran Israeli journalist Yaron London has convincingly argued. Few imagine it would ever garner Palestinian approval. Yet, from the purely moral point of view, is an exchange of populated territory inherently a more nefarious idea than the Palestinian demand for a complete Israeli withdrawal to the armistice lines in effect between 1949 and 1967—what Abba Eban called "Auschwitz borders"?

Lieberman's decision to present his scheme at the General Assembly highlights a structural anomaly in Israel's political system. The job of foreign minister is a patronage appointment. Prime ministers usually have to tap rivals from within their own party or from one or another coalition partner. As a result, foreign ministers seldom see themselves as bound to a premier. Moshe Sharett vehemently disapproved of David Ben-Gurion's security policies. Moshe Dayan represented Menachem Begin only insofar as their views on particular issues happened to coincide. Shimon Peres offered territorial concessions to the Palestinians without first clearing them with Yitzhak Rabin. Tzipi Livni conducted her own talks with Ahmed Qurei as a sideshow to Ehud Olmert's bargaining with Mahmoud Abbas. Silvan Shalom was hardly Ariel Sharon's vicar, any more than David Levy or Shimon Peres had been Yitzhak Shamir's. Later on, during the crisis years of the second intifada, Sharon and Peres did work mostly in tandem—but only because they agreed on the overriding need to quash Palestinian aggression.

It was therefore not all that odd for Netanyahu's office to distance itself from Lieberman's speech, to state that the foreign minister had not coordinated his address with the premier, and to recall that Netanyahu and not Lieberman is the one heading negotiations with the Palestinians. Some may seek more Machiavellian explanations for the speech and the premier's response to it, but this may be giving the two men more credit, as politicians and statesmen, than they deserve.

What would it take for Israeli foreign policy-makers to speak with one voice? Nothing short of jettisoning Israel's electoral system of pure proportional representation and empowering premiers to dismiss wayward cabinet ministers without paying a grievous political price. In the meantime, it is easier to lash out at Lieberman the unlovable.

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greer fay cashman on October 6, 2010 at 7:45 am (Reply)
The secret of Jewish survival is chaos. If we all spoke with one voice, and we all were in one place, the Jewish People would have long ago disappeared. As a leftist, I seldom agree with the views of Avigdor Lieberman, but I do admire the fact that he sticks to his guns and tells it as he sees it.
By the way, let's not forget that he agreed to forefeit his own home in the disputed territories if he was convinced that real peace had been achieved.
This may have been an empty offer because he does not believe that peace will ever come, or it might have been a token of sincerity. Everyone knows that a peace agreement will entail compromise and concessions on both sides. Mr. Lieberman has stated that he will give up his home for peace. The question is who else will do the same?
Amanda Cohen on October 6, 2010 at 9:28 am (Reply)
Avigdor Lieberman said it the way it is. To bad the West doesn't want to hear it. That doesn't make him wrong, it just makes him an unusual politician. Someone who is prepared to state the facts instead of pandering to people who are not supporting real peace anyhow.
Moishgil on October 6, 2010 at 3:01 pm (Reply)
Lieberman is a shameful embarrassment to the State of Israel. The fact that the Prime Minister's office had to disavow any association with his remarks is testimony to the ultimate failure of parliamentary systems of government that create such ineffectual, laughable coalition governments. (Not to mention the control it has given the Haredim, who comprise less than 10% of the country, over Jewish life and identity in the Jewish homeland!)
Independent Patriot on October 6, 2010 at 4:31 pm (Reply)
Very interesting article and analysis of not only Lieberman's UN speech but the speech in context of Israeli politics. I think though the most striking sentence and understanding of reality was glossed over-that the issues in Israeli society are about how to secure peace. This bespeaks more about what Israeli society and the Jewish community world-wide are about than anything else.

Another interesting point was that he did call out the world's hypocrisy when it comes to the creation of a Palestinian State, however in the long-run that really doesn't solve the issue or Israel's immediate problem, and that is millions of people who live next to them that don't want them to exist. The reality is that Israel has to deal with a Palestinian national movement whether cynically fomented by the Arab world and the Left over decades or not. It exists, it is as much a national force as Zionism. Eban warned decades ago not to discount Palestinian nationalism because to do that was to discount another group of people even if those people try to discount us.Eban wasn't wrong then and he isn't wrong now.
Rabbi Jonathan, Madison, Wisconsin on October 6, 2010 at 6:42 pm (Reply)
In his address Lieberman said this: "Leading scholars and highly respected research institutions have even coined the term 'Right-Sizing the State' to capture the idea that states and nations must be in balance in order to ensure peace. This is not a controversial political policy. It is an empirical truth."

The difficulty with this position is that it confirms the fears and anxieties of both the Israeli and Diaspora Jewish political left who predicted that development of the settlements in occupied territory created too many 'facts on the ground,' which now Lieberman sees as "truth" and not simply "policy" that could actually be reversed.

These 'facts' are truly at the root of the problem now, and deferring a decision on them, that is, refusing to come to a negotiated settlement and permitting them to grow unimpeded, makes no sense if we're trying to create peace between admittedly already mistrusting neighbors.
Natan on October 6, 2010 at 7:45 pm (Reply)
All this posturing and handwringing about Avigdor Lieberman and his UN speech amounts to nothing of substance. There was nothing new in his speech except for an injection of a healthy dose of reality. The self-delusion of the so called peace process omits one key prerequisite for any hope for peace, namely the acceptance of Arabs of the Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel. At least Lieberman is not afraid to call a spade a spade.
Crystal K. on October 7, 2010 at 7:07 am (Reply)
it's unfortunate that JID's recently appointed editor, Elliot Jager and his left-wing's views on FM Lieberman's courageous, excellent speech at the UN are being supported by JID, and we disagree in full with his article. (Meanwhile, your readers seem to be sharing our opinion, majoritarily?).
"his speech...was not well received at home"??? By the leftists, he means to say! Not surprisingly, E.J. supports his biased narrative with the 'clownish' circus of extreme leftist Haaretz editorial line, and other sources alike. Liberals tend to thrive in pandering, in dubious ambiguity, in contrast with Lieberman's outspoken, "Let me be very clear.." and his no-nonsense :
"I am not talking about moving populations, but rather about moving borders to better reflect
demographic realities" he said. As your reader Amanda Cohen comments (quote) :
"Avigdor Lieberman said it the way it is. To bad the West doesn't want to hear it. That doesn't make him wrong, it just makes him an unusual politician. Someone who is prepared to state the facts instead of pandering to people who are not supporting real peace anyhow". She said it all.

Crystal K.
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