The Unlovable Avigdor Lieberman

By Elliot Jager
Wednesday, October 6, 2010

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.

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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