Monday, October 04, 2010

The unlovable Avigdor Lieberman

Avigdor Lieberman's September 28th speech at the UN General Assembly – delivered in English and broadcast live by Al-Jazeera – was not well received. The doyen of Israeli left-wing columnists, Yediot Aharonot's Nahum Barnea, dismissed his country's foreign minister as a "clown." Haaretz editorialized for Lieberman's resignation. Britain's Daily Telegraph characterized the address as "inflammatory.”

And dismissing Lieberman as "a West Bank settler" not "committed to peacemaking," the Los Angeles Times editorialized that Ariel Sharon and Yitzhak Rabin would never have allowed a foreign minister of theirs to articulate views that contradicted government policy. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must either be duplicitous, in implying Lieberman's address did not have his backing, or politically enfeebled, the newspaper adjudged.

There is no disputing the fact that the speech was "off-message" -- differing from the accommodationist tone Netanyahu has set – and delivered by a reviled envoy. What is debatable is whether Lieberman's unhelpful address deserved the opprobrium heaped upon it; and whether the claim that foreign ministers loyally adhere to the political line set by their premiers is factual.

First to the substance of Lieberman's speech which began by stating the obvious: Israel's political arena is not divided between those who want peace and those who prefer a Greater Israel. Instead, Israel's majority is divided over how to secure peace. The Arabs controlled the West Bank and Gaza for nearly two decades and "no-one tried to create a Palestinian state," Lieberman pointed out. Yet, later, settlements notwithstanding, "peace agreements were achieved with Egypt and Jordan." There being no 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 argued that "the guiding principle for a final status agreement must not be land-for-peace but rather [an] exchange of populated territory." Conflicts elsewhere, he stated, which had involved competing national and religious narratives -- post-communist Czechoslovakia and of East Timor, for instance – had been eased by redrawing boundaries. "Let me be very clear," Lieberman said, "I am not speaking about moving populations, but rather about moving borders to better reflect demographic realities."

Lieberman's plan may be geographically unworkable, as veteran Israeli journalist Yaron London has convincingly argued. Few imagine it will ever garner Palestinian approval. Yet on a purely moral plane, it would be hard to argue an exchange of populated territory is inherently a more nefarious idea than advocating a complete Israeli withdrawal to the hard-to-defend armistice lines in effect between 1949 and 1967 – Abba Eban's "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 among requisite coalition partners. As a result, foreign ministers seldom see themselves as loyal-bound to a premier. Moshe Sharett vehemently disapproved of David Ben-Gurion's security policies. Moshe Dayan represented Menachem Begin only to the extent that their views coincided. Shimon Peres offered territorial concessions to the Palestinians without first clearing them with Yitzhak Rabin. Tzipi Livni sessions with Ahmed Qurei were a sideshow to Ehud Olmert's bargaining with Mahmoud Abbas. Silvan Shalom was hardly Ariel Sharon's vicar of foreign policy any more than David Levy or Shimon Peres were for Yitzhak Shamir. Thankfully, during the crisis years of the second intifada, Sharon and Peres worked mostly in tandem 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 – not Lieberman – is actually heading negotiations with the Palestinians. Some will seek Machiavellian explanations for the speech and the premier's response to it, perhaps giving the two 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 premier's to dismiss wayward cabinet ministers without grievous political cost. Plainly, it is easier to lash out at the unlovable Avigdor Lieberman than muster the integrity and energy necessary to fix what is really wrong.

-- October 2010

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