However, the chutzpa and contempt shown to the prime minister and to the responsibility required of Lieberman as a government minister pales in comparison to the substantive diplomatic and PR damages caused to the State of Israel and its citizens by the foreign minister’s speech at the United Nations Tuesday. We are dealing with multilayered damage here.
Lieberman presented Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and in fact the entire Israel government as being deceptive, if not outright liars. As though they are not speaking the truth when they declare that there’s a genuine chance to secure a peace agreement with the Palestinians within a year. Lieberman, Israel’s foreign minister, announced to the world that at most we can achieve a long-term interim deal. That is, Netanyahu’s and Barak’s words to President Obama are empty.
Desire to torpedo talks
The foreign minister undermined Israel’s image as a democratic, enlightened state when he presented his audience with the proposal to get rid of some of the country’s Arab citizens via “territorial and population tradeoffs.” It doesn’t matter at all whether such proposal is indeed being considered in Jerusalem seriously or whether it only exists in Lieberman’s head. The very fact that a government minister presents such idea at a binding international forum turns this notion into a powerful weapon at the hands of the significant camp striving to delegitimize the State of Israel.
Quite a few people in Israel and abroad will find certain similarities between Lieberman’s words and the speeches delivered by other delusional politicians on the same stage – Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for example, or Hugo Chavez. Those interested in slamming Israel do not pay attention to nuances and prefer to ignore them. The proposal for territorial and population tradeoffs made at the UN General Assembly sounds like a softer version that aims for the same thing Ahmadinejad was referring to.
Lieberman granted a diplomatic victory to Mahmoud Abbas on a silver platter. Lieberman’s words at the UN merely confirm the Palestinian president’s claim that he is suspicious of the intentions of Israelis who speak about two states for two people, but in fact refer to yet another interim agreement that would reinforce the existing situation with mild changes (most of them in Israel’s favor) on the ground.
Lieberman’s words also reinforce Abbas’ demand to fully freeze settlement construction as real proof that Netanyahu is indeed willing to undertake painful compromises and disputes in order to secure a peace treaty. Moreover, if and when direct talks are resumed, Abbas would be able to claim in the face of any disagreement that an Israeli government that includes Lieberman is not really willing to establish a Palestinian state and is aiming to realize Lieberman’s plan.
It’s hard to know what prompted Lieberman to undertake such shameless, reckless act. The foreign minister is not stupid and certainly understood the implications of his speech. Hence, the impression we get is that the main motive was his ideological desire to torpedo the negotiations with the Palestinians and his political aspiration to position himself as the genuine leader of Israel’s rightist camp.
Yet now, the ball is in Netanyahu’s court; he is the main victim – personally and politically – of the speech.
Netanyahu’s soft response
The prime minister could have somewhat minimized the damages of the speech had he issued a scathing, unequivocal statement immediately after Lieberman spoke, declaring that the foreign minister’s words do not reflect the Israeli government’s position and decisions in respect to talks with the Palestinians, and that he intends to reprimand Lieberman.
However, the prime minister only said that the speech was no coordinated with him, and that Netanyahu is the one who engages in talks with the Palestinians. This soft, vague message merely reinforced the impression that Lieberman’s speech was more than just hot air.
Yet even if Netanyahu would have issued a scathing announcement, the problem would remain: The accumulated damages suffered by the State of Israel and by Netanyahu as result of Lieberman’s very presence as foreign minister. These damages justify the call, which we hear among the public as well, to dismiss Lieberman or at least move him to another post, where the damages he caused would be milder.
Now, when Israel’s international isolation grows and threatens its security and ability to contend with the Iranian threat, it cannot afford a confrontational foreign minister who is unpredictable and reckless. Hence, Netanyahu can and should dismiss Lieberman. Such things have happened before. Ariel Sharon dismissed ministers who objected to his policy, and Netanyahu did the same in his previous term in office, when he dismissed then-Minister Yitzhak Mordechai.
However, as it turns out, Netanyahu has still not given up on Lieberman as a coalition partner and therefore continues to back him. It turns out that the prime minister fears Livni and Kadima’s presence in the government more than he’s angry over the repeated damages caused to the State of Israel by Lieberman. It appears the prime minister’s survival-ideological considerations are more important to him than the state’s diplomatic interests.
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