Avigdor Lieberman as Israel’s Foreign Minister

by Daniel Pipes
October 7, 2009
updated Jan 21, 2011

I congratulated Avigdor Lieberman when he took office as Israel’s foreign minister in April 2009. Here I shall occasionally follow his outspoken and unconventional role in office.

Lieberman fashioning new foreign policy” writes Haviv Rettig Gur in the Jerusalem Post, showing that the foreign minister is doing some creative thinking:

The policy staff in Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s office has drawn up a secret memo calling for a radical refocus of Israeli foreign policy toward the developing world, The Jerusalem Post has learned. According to sources, the foreign minister plans to bring the five-page preliminary policy paper to the ministry’s senior professional staff in the coming days, to begin discussion on implementing what is being described as “guidelines for a whole new foreign policy.”

According to a copy of the memo obtained by the Post, the new policy involves moving away from a “lone dependence” on the United States as a strategic ally, to developing broader and closer ties with other world powers and with the developing world.

The document, which was developed in recent weeks at Lieberman’s request, focuses on three major shifts in policy: expanding ties with parts of the world “neglected” by previous governments, lowering international expectations of a breakthrough in negotiations with the Palestinians and creating a “zero-tolerance” policy for anti-Semitic expressions worldwide. The memo chastises the Foreign Ministry for “becoming the ‘Ministry for Palestinian Affairs,’ with Israeli foreign policy almost entirely consumed by this single issue.”

The memo also argues that “the lone dependence on the United States is unhealthy for either side and presents difficulties for the US. Israel must build coalitions with other states on the basis of shared interests. In this way, it will expand and strengthen the circle of support, something which will be a relief for the US as well.” (October 7, 2009)

Sep. 28, 2010 update: Lieberman gave another stem-winder, this time at the United Nations General Assembly, where he stated that the Iranian issue is a higher priority than the Palestinians and that peace with the Palestinians first requires an intermediate agreement lasting “decades.” This overtly contradicts Netanyahu’s position that direct negotiations with the Palestinians ­ should resolve the basic problems within a year.

Netanyahu’s office responded to Lieberman’s speech with a short statement: “The content of the foreign minister’s speech at the United Nations was not coordinated with the prime minister. Prime Minister Netanyahu is the one who is managing the political negotiations of the State of Israel.” State Department spokesman, Philip J. Crowley piled on: “The prime minister told us that there are difficult politics on his side, and this is perhaps a manifestation of that.”

Comment: It does not seem that Lieberman’s opinions count for much, at least not vis-à-vis negotiations with the Palestinians.

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Foreign ministers Miguel Moratinos, Avigdor Lieberman, and Bernard Kouchner.

He also suggested that the Europeans are making up for failures elsewhere by focusing on Israel and the Palestinians: “What about the struggle in Somalia, North Korea, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan and Sudan? Instead of talking now with the Arab League about the future of a referendum in Sudan, or discussing the explosive situation in Iraq in 2012, the international community is applying great pressure on Israel.”

Dec. 27, 2010 update: After Lieberman gave his unvarnished views on the Palestinians and relations with Ankara, Netanyahu hastened to distance himself:

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu did damage control Monday evening, a day after Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman called the Palestinian Authority government “illegitimate,” saying in a rare television interview that if the conditions were right he would pursue a historic peace agreement regardless of coalition considerations. …Since taking office nearly two years ago, Netanyahu has given only a handful of interviews to the Israeli media. But following Lieberman’s speech on Sunday, where the Foreign Minister also went on the offensive against Turkey and said that the country’s’ prime minister and foreign minster were lying, Netanyahu apparently felt the need to show he was in charge and publicly distance himself from these remarks.

Regarding Turkey, Netanyahu – asked about Lieberman’s comments – said that he learned years ago it was always better to deal with the issues, rather than engage in personal attacks. …Netanyahu said that Lieberman was not “humiliating” him by making statements that run contrary to his own positions. “He is expressing his opinion,” Netanyahu said. “In Israel’s system of government ministers always express their opinions. In this case, Lieberman, [Defense Minister Ehud] Barak, [Interior Minister Elli] Yishai, [Science and Technology Minister Daniel] Herschkowitz – they have different opinions. The opinion that counts is the one decided upon by the government, or the one expressed by the prime minister. That is the way it has always been in previous governments, and that is the way it is now.” …

Lieberman, meanwhile, is expected to present an alternative plan for diplomatic process in the near future, what he referred to Sunday as “Plan B.” Foreign Ministry sources said he has worked on the plan , expected to be details of a long term interim agreement with an emphasis on economic and security dimensions, with senior officials in the ministry.

Comment: What to make of this situation? Isi Liebler rues this situation in the Jerusalem Post:

Such independent forays by ministers bring an element of chaos into the government. When they involve the Foreign Minister, it can only lead to total anarchy. It is surely a sad day for Israel when the Prime Minister’s office is obliged to make a statement that the Foreign Minister was speaking in his personal capacity.

Our government is obliged to speak with one voice and must display a united front. This applies particularly so today when we face so much malevolent hostility throughout the world and remain heavily reliant on the support of a problematic American administration. …

When individual ministers launch public outbursts – even if what they say makes sense – they nevertheless undermine the government. They also provide credence to the claims and that the Netanyahu government comprises of unstable factions and is incapable of implementing any policy.

Also in the Jerusalem Post, Michael Friedson sees benefit in this arrangement: “Lieberman has served Netanyahu well by placing into the public debate cautions and concerns the prime minister himself doesn’t dare to utter.”

I am inclined to the latter view and hope Lieberman will continue to keep speaking out, even if his views are not operational Israeli government policy.

Dec. 30, 2010 update: In “Lieberman got it right,” Guy Bechor puts the controversy in a larger perspective and offers his support for the foreign minister:

Turkey will be holding general elections in 2011 that would determine its future in a historical manner. Should Israel show restraint and pretend that all is well, the ruling Islamic party will only benefit from it, as it will be paying no price for its belligerence towards Israel. …

There is no reason to fear when one is right, and we should first and foremost condemn Turkey vis-à-vis the new American Congress, in the hopes it would curb future arms deals and consider whether Turkey can even remain a member of NATO. …

Israel can offer, for example, to serve as mediator between the Greek administration in Cyprus and the puppet regime set up on the island by the Turks. After all, isn’t that occupation? Turkey should go ahead and end its own occupation before concerning itself with other cases of occupation. Israel can also volunteer to mediate between the Turks and the Kurds who are being massacred by Ankara, as the Jewish state maintains ties with both parties. In other words, there is much we can do “for the benefit of the Turks”; eye for an eye, hypocrisy for hypocrisy. …

We should also make it clear to the secular majority that if there is one factor that deters the European Union, it is Erdogan’s brutality, and that should Turkey continue in this direction, its economy will be threatened. …

The Israeli case should serve as a bar for Turkish voters in respect to how far an Islamic government can go, and the kind of prices they shall be paying for their government’s adventurism.

Jan. 11, 2011 update: For the first time, Netanyahu has publicly rebuked Lieberman, when the latter criticized members of Netanyahu’s Likud party for opposing an initiative to investigate Israeli human rights groups critical of the government. He found it a “strange spectacle” that Likud members protect groups he called “terrorist collaborators.” Netanyahu’s office said he “utterly rejects” Lieberman’s statement.

Jan. 13, 2011 update: Efraim Inbar of Bar-Ilan University offers a positive view of the foreign minister in “Lieberman and the Naked Emperor“:

Lieberman is often telling the naked truth. … Moreover, his views reflect the sober assessment of a large majority of Israelis. Even large swaths of the Israeli Left agree that there is no Palestinian partner for a full peace. … He is enjoying the role of the boy who exposed the sham behind the Emperor’s new clothes. But in contrast to the naïve boy in that well-known fable, Lieberman is a shrewd politician. The emphasis on naked truth suits his search for votes. After all, truth has certain appeal among Israeli voters. This is Israel’s dilemma. Who represents the better and wiser diplomatic course: Netanyahu or Lieberman?

Jan. 16, 2011 update: Before launching into an explanation of why Hamas is not a terrorist organization, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan took time to attack Lieberman. Ha’aretz reports that he called Lieberman

Israel’s “greatest problem”, reacting to the latter’s remarks that Turkey’s demands for apology were cheeky (“chutzpah”). The Turkish premier told interviewers that the Israel public should “get rid” of Lieberman, who he called a “despicable” man. “It is up to them, not us” to unseat Lieberman, said Erdogan, adding: “If they don’t, Israel’s problems will only get worse.”

Comment: For me, commendations don’t come much better than that.

Source material can be found at this site.

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