Thursday, July 02, 2009

Sarkozy sideshow...what really matters to Israeli foreign policy

Last week in Paris, French President Nicolas Sarkozy told Prime Minister
Binyamin Netanyahu to replace Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman with Tzipi
Livni. "I'm telling you," he reportedly said, "you need to get rid of that
man."


That might have been a propitious moment for Netanyahu to recommend that
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner be replaced by Martine Aubry, head
of the Socialist Party. Instead, the premier replied, somewhat
mealy-mouthed, that Lieberman was actually a nice chap ­ once you got to
know him.


No doubt, were Sarkozy directeur des ressources humanines at our Foreign
Ministry, the place would take on a different political orientation. Would
Golda Meir have gotten his nod? Ariel Sharon? Moshe Arens? Yitzhak Shamir?
Unlikely.


But it's easier to be contemptuous of Sarkozy¹s behavior than to address the
bigger problems besetting foreign policy under Netanyahu¹s stewardship.
When he took office in March, he promised a reassessment of Israel¹s stance
vis-à-vis the Palestinians. Yet he arrived at the White House in May without
a plan; and didn¹t articulate one until his June 14 Bar-Ilan address. In
contradistinction to an Obama administration which knew exactly what it
wanted, the PM¹s three months of dawdling proved costly to Israeli
interests.

Secondly, Netanyahu appointed a foreign minister with a not-undeserved image
problem.


This newspaper was unenthusiastic about Lieberman's appointment. We strongly
urged Tzipi Livni to put country first and join a Netanyahu-led coalition as
foreign minister. It was not to be.


SOME Israelis suspect that when journalists rush to characterize Lieberman
as an "ultra-nationalist" and a "settler," or when foreign leaders maintain
their discreet boycott against him, they are motivated less by revulsion
over the positions of his Israel Beiteinu Party than by the sense that he is
a tough negotiator. Yet Lieberman embraced the road map and Netanyahu¹s
Bar-Ilan speech endorsing a two-state solution, and nothing about his
policies merits disdain. Moreover, if a security or settlement policy
doesn¹t gain Lieberman¹s support, chances are it won¹t fly with mainstream
Israelis either.

For all his bombast and past demagoguery, Lieberman is a remarkably
pragmatic politician.

So Netanyahu needs to be emphatic that Lieberman is a "fact on the ground" ­
and he made a good beginning on this before the European ambassadorial
delegation to Israel on Tuesday. The premier must do nothing to facilitate
foreign leaders going around Lieberman and dealing with Netanyahu directly.
A third problem is that there are too many players engaged in high-stakes
foreign policy-making. For instance, we find it curious that Defense
Minister Ehud Barak ­ rather than Lieberman ­ was tasked with negotiating
with US Special Middle East Envoy George Mitchell in New York. After all,
the foreign minister met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in
Washington last month, and acquitted himself well. Certainly, Mitchell¹s
constitution is no more delicate than Clinton's.

Lieberman could have been accompanied by experts from the Defense Ministry
to help with any security issues that might have arisen. But the controversy
over a total and unconditional settlement freeze is in the purview of
foreign, not defense policy. Indeed, it was the Foreign Ministry that
disseminated the rather hollow joint statement following the meeting.
Nor, anyway, did Barak¹s presence ­ as opposed to Lieberman¹s ­ charm the
pants off Mitchell. A senior White House official told The Washington Post,
bluntly: "We have not changed our position at all... Nor has the president
authorized any negotiating room."

Israel recently appointed the highly capable Michael Oren as its ambassador
to Washington. His accreditation is in its final stages. Once that goes
through, it would be wise for visiting Netanyahu confidantes to steer clear
of meetings with Obama administration officials. It is essential that Oren
be recognized as Israel's paramount voice in the American capital.
Israelis' splenetic reaction to Sarkozy¹s meddling is understandable. Let it
not distract us, however, from far more serious challenges.

We need decisive, coherent foreign policy leadership at a time when
President Barack Obama seems intent on testing the special relationship
between the US and Israel. And Netanyahu needs to work with Lieberman in
explaining why ­ for all its good intentions ­ the administration's approach
is bad for both countries.

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