Posted by Alex on Sunday, October 31st, 2010
Written by Shai for Syria Comment
The question has been bothering me, as well as many other Israelis (perhaps even most), for quite some time now. We didn’t need to wait this long, to hear the controversial speech at the UN, to ask why the Israeli Prime Minister hasn’t fired Lieberman. We asked this question when Lieberman allowed for the most embarrassing treatment of the Turkish Ambassador earlier this year. We asked this when the Police disclosed its intention to recommend Lieberman be tried under multiple charges of corruption. We asked this when Lieberman patronized European foreign ministers, telling them to “first fix your problems” in Europe, before lecturing Israel. We’ve been asking “Why Lieberman?” again and again, ever since Netanyahu chose him for his post. Sometimes one finds comfort in unexpected places, even in knowing that others, outside of Israel, are asking the same question.
Speculations about the Netanyahu-Lieberman political-marriage are varied but, surprisingly enough, Israeli media has focused less on “why”, and more on “why-not”. But the “why” is no less important, and might possibly be a key factor in our common goals towards Peace. In pondering this question, I’ve come up with a number of reasons, at least some of which I am convinced are true. By the end of Netanyahu’s term in office, I hope we’ll know whether the rest are true as well. Here are five reasons why I believe Netanyahu chose Lieberman as Israel’s Foreign Minister, and for now, prefers to keep him there:
1. Political Pressure-Reducer:
Lieberman, a West Bank settler and a politician with extremist views, is often considered the “loudest dog” in the pack. Few politicians on the Extreme-Right are more vocal and anti-Peace than Lieberman. By placing Lieberman as so-called “chief diplomat” for Israel, the man responsible for Israel’s foreign-policy (including that of Peace), Netanyahu assures himself a lot of political quiet-time from the Right and Extreme-Right, his only potential adversaries. While many suspect, few can openly criticize Netanyahu for endangering Israel, when Lieberman is allowed to speak as he does, at home and abroad. Notice, “endanger Israel”, from the Right or Extreme-Right point of view, is giving back land.
2. Foreign Minister doesn’t mean Foreign Policy:
While Lieberman certainly has harmed Israel’s diplomatic relations, most noticeably with our critical and strategic ally Turkey, Netanyahu has made sure that our Foreign MInister does not “come near” our peace negotiations with the Palestinians. Netanyahu keeps Lieberman busy worldwide, while his own team sits with Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad. (Interesting note about Turkey: As relations continued to deteriorate, Netanyahu apparently sent Labor’s Infrastructure Minister Fouad Ben-Eliezer to Turkey, without informing Lieberman. Learning of this only upon Fouad’s return, Lieberman was furious.)
3. Good for Negotiations:
While Lieberman isn’t brought into peace negotiations with the Palestinians, Netanyahu knows that Abu Mazen cannot ignore Lieberman’s views. If Tzipi Livni were to replace Lieberman, her Center-leaning political profile, and her public statements regarding a two-state solution, would not serve Israel well during negotiations, as Netanyahu might see it. To close a deal, the other side might need to be reminded that there are those close by, who don’t want to close a deal at all. If one can maintain even the slightest speculation that such deal-opposers may be candidates one day for PM, this might be viewed by the other side as more a reason to compromise today, for fear of a worse tomorrow.
4. Good for Outside Pressure:
This might actually be one of the key factors in Netanyahu’s calculations. If Netanyahu is interested in achieving Comprehensive Peace, and a final end to the Arab-Israeli conflict, then surely he sees his own people as the biggest hurdle to overcome. He already knows that the Palestinians are ready to compromise over Right-of-Return, over security, and even over territory. He knows that Syria has promised to meet Israel’s security-demands, and that Israel’s number one ally, the United States, has promised to vouch for Israel’s security. Netanyahu knows that Security is as close to guaranteed as any PM could ever get. But he doesn’t know that his people will back him. He doesn’t know, if his people will be ready to give back the Golan. Or to vacate hundreds of thousands of Jews, out of their homes in the West Bank. Or to divide Jerusalem. He doesn’t know if Israelis will either allow him to do all of these, or ever forgive him for having done so.
But Netanyahu does know, that if he can bring about a situation whereby Israel is “forced to comply”, by her closest allies, or by the threat of sanctions, or even by war, that he can then more easily come before his people and say “Israel’s security depends no less on her relations with her closest allies, than it does on a stretch of land in the West Bank, or on the Golan…” And if outside pressure is indeed something Netanyahu sees as necessary, then placing Lieberman as Foreign Minister, and allowing him to voice our “Foreign Policy” worldwide, are both logical agitators that can help speed up this pressure.
It is interesting to note, that while the PM’s Office did make a public statement disconnecting itself from Lieberman’s recent speech at the UN (calling it “his personal views, which are not representative of the Israeli government…”), Netanyahu has yet to tell the Israeli media why he keeps Lieberman in this position. All Israeli media forms have been calling for his resignation, and yet Netanyahu does nothing.
5. The Countdown Begins after Lieberman is Replaced:
Netanyahu knows that the minute he replaces Lieberman as Foreign Minister, his adversaries will have the political fuel they need, to begin the Offensive that will lead to new Elections. Lieberman will make Netanyahu look like the next Oslo-selling Rabin, and no political leader from the Right, Center, or Left, could help defend the Prime Minister (and none will want to.) Netanyahu’s political countdown will begin. However, it is not unlikely that if serious progress is made on any of the Peace tracks (Palestinian, Syrian or Lebanese), that Netanyahu will be forced to replace Lieberman by Tzipi Livni, to attain a large-enough coalition to carry out the necessary steps towards reaching a final Peace Agreement. The questions are if and when this countdown will begin.
I have tried to answer the question “Why Lieberman?” without assuming that Netanyahu is interested in Peace. But clearly my answers aren’t truly-neutral. Yet the more I considered the second option, the one that many out there believe – that Netanyahu isn’t ready to withdraw to the 1967 lines, the more I found contradictions with keeping Lieberman around. After all, if the idea was to make time go by, to let the whole world think Israel is doing “everything we can” to bring Peace to the region, to end the Israeli Occupation, to bring about a just end to the Palestinian problem, then what could be easier than letting Ehud Barak or Tzipi Livni be Israel’s Foreign Minister? Why not form a Center-Right coalition, and let all our best Two-State supporters numb their listeners worldwide, as we have done so well over the years? Lieberman, in such a case, would be counterproductive.
But to those who still fear Avigdor Lieberman, who still view him as more mainstream than do the Israeli media, the Israeli Police, or the Israeli people, I remind them of the old saying: “Smaller dogs bark loudest.”
Posted by Alex