Monday, March 09, 2009

Avigdor Lieberman - Israel's next foreign minister

Monday - From Eban to Lieberman


Avigdor Lieberman is no Abba Eban, yet destiny - or more accurately, a fragmented body politic and an outmoded method of building governing coalitions - has decreed that the Israel Beiteinu leader will likely become this country's next foreign minister.

Eban was suave, cosmopolitan, Cambridge-educated. He made his first appearance before the UN Security Council in 1948. More popular abroad than at home, he served nine years as our ambassador to both Washington and the UN. Word that he was appearing helped fill Yankee Stadium at a Salute to Israel rally in 1956. As foreign minister during both the 1967 Six Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War, his mellifluous voice became synonymous with the justice of Israel's cause.

Lieberman, in contrast, is far more popular at home than abroad. The foreign press labels him, not without justification, "a provocative nationalist." His party captured 15 Knesset seats (behind Kadima's 28 and Likud's 27) thanks to a demagogic campaign advocating that Israel's Arab minority prove its fidelity.

This newspaper rejects the notion that individuals who are already citizens be required to sign a loyalty oath. Fortunately, there is zero chance of Lieberman's populist rhetoric getting translated into government policy.

Of course, Lieberman would not be standing on the threshold of the Foreign Ministry had Kadima leader Tzipi Livni put country first and accepted Binyamin Netanyahu's offer to become a senior partner in his government. She was willing to serve as his foreign minister only if he agreed to serve as hers in a four-year rotation government.

Israel's previous experience with a rotation government occurred in 1984, when similarly inconclusive results led Labor's Shimon Peres and the Likud's Yitzhak Shamir to join forces: Peres served as premier for the first two years, with Shamir as his FM; the two then switched places midway. It was a dysfunctional marriage, which then US ambassador to Israel Samuel Lewis said required him to deal with "two Israeli governments." Israel was left diplomatically rudderless, absent a hierarchy, and for four years its friends were at a loss to discern who spoke for Jerusalem. Netanyahu is right to reject a repeat of this nightmare scenario.

Livni's claim that policy differences over negotiations with the Palestinians are keeping her out of the government is hardly credible. What supposedly sets Kadima and Likud apart is the theoretical matter of how talks with the Palestinians should be concluded. Given that Mahmoud Abbas would not cut a deal with Ehud Olmert, the latter's generosity of spirit and political desperation notwithstanding, we fail to understand why a possible divergence of views over the precise nature of a far-off Palestinian sovereignty should, at this stage, keep Livni in the opposition. Her refusal to join the government at this time of unparalleled diplomatic, security and economic challenges will serve neither her nor Kadima.

WE ARE not enamored with the government in the making; not with Lieberman at the Foreign Ministry; not with Shas's Eli Yishai at Interior. The incoming government will have neither the ability nor inclination to pursue electoral reform or religious pluralism. It will lack the diplomatic agility necessary for creative statecraft.

Lieberman will be to Netanyahu's Foreign Ministry what Amir Peretz was to Olmert's Defense Ministry - a patronage appointment in a job that begs for a sophisticated actor of world stature and an engaging media presence - Israel's face to the world. That Livni has fallen short of these criteria does not assuage our concerns over Lieberman. While his spoken English is no worse than hers, we saw the consequences of her ineloquence during Operation Cast Lead.

IN THE aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, Eban addressed the 1973 Geneva Conference: "The crisis in the Middle East has many consequences, but only one cause. Israel's right to peace… indeed its very right to live, has been forcibly denied and constantly attacked. In no other dispute has there ever been such a total denial, not only of the sovereign rights of a state, but even its legitimate personality."

Sadly, Eban's words hold no less true today than they did 35 years ago. Equally disheartening, perhaps, is that eloquence of speech and clarity of thought are no longer a prerequisite for the job of foreign minister.

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