JERUSALEM — If Avigdor Lieberman’s appointment as foreign minister seemed odd when it was made, recent developments cast more doubt over his capacity to function as Israel’s top diplomat.
Israel’s most acute foreign policy challenge — the showdown with the United States over building in West Bank settlements — is being handled largely by Defense Minister Ehud Barak following discreet signals from Obama administration officials that they prefer dealing with Barak rather than Lieberman.
This week, President Shimon Peres was chosen to represent Israel on a sensitive diplomatic mission to Cairo. Lieberman, who said last November that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak could “go to hell” if he didn’t want to visit Israel, is persona non grata in Cairo.
And behind the scenes, it is Silvan Shalom, the minister for regional cooperation, who is working to develop ties with the Arab world, not Lieberman.
Perhaps the most dramatic rejection of Lieberman as foreign minister has come from Europe. In a private conversation in late June, French President Nicolas Sarkozy reportedly urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to dump Lieberman for the sake of Middle East peacemaking.
“You must get rid of that man,” Sarkozy was quoted as saying. “Get him out and bring [Kadima leader Tzipi] Livni in. With her and with Barak you can make history.”
Kept at arm’s length by the Americans, ostracized by the Arabs and spurned by some leading Europeans, Lieberman, who is reviled for what many see as his anti-Arab, racist views, soon may find himself foreign minister in name only.
As media criticism in Israel of Lieberman’s inability to advance Israel’s foreign policy interests mounted, Lieberman called a news conference in the Knesset this week to downplay the allegations. He argued that it was only natural that Barak was handling the settlement issue, since as defense minister he was formally responsible for the occupied West Bank and everything that goes on there.
Although that is the case — the West Bank is under the Israel Defense Forces’ Central Command and the civilian coordinator of government activities in the territories, both of which fall under the defense minister’s purview — it is unlikely that any other foreign minister would have been sidelined to the extent that Lieberman has been.
Reflecting just how much he is feeling the heat, Lieberman offered another, more dubious explanation for Barak’s role: He claimed that as a settler (Lieberman lives in the West Bank settlement of Nokdim) it would be a conflict of interest if he were to deal with the settlement issue.
“I would not want to be blamed for deliberately undermining negotiations with the Americans,” Lieberman said.
He also made light of Sarkozy’s call for his ouster.
“People sometimes say unnecessary things,” Lieberman said. “I see it as an unfortunate slip of the tongue.”
Israeli commentators do not seem convinced, expressing increasing skepticism over Lieberman’s ability to make a significant contribution to Israeli foreign policy.
There are even signs of an incipient campaign for Lieberman’s ouster. The left-leaning Ha’aretz daily has taken the lead with a string of anti-Lieberman cartoons and commentaries, including an online editorial headlined “Sarkozy is right — Lieberman must go.”
“On the eve of the renewal of negotiations with the Palestinians and perhaps with Syria, too, Israel needs all the support it can muster from the international community,” the editorialists wrote. “It is imperative to replace Lieberman with another foreign minister, who will benefit from an open door in the world’s capitals.”
During the campaign, Lieberman stirred controversy by calling for mandatory loyalty oaths to the Jewish state in a bid to curtail Israeli Arabs’ political rights. After the campaign, he declared the Annapolis peace process null and void.
So why did Netanyahu appoint so controversial a figure to the Foreign Ministry?
Lieberman’s party, Yisrael Beiteinu, is the third largest in the Knesset. During the coalition negotiations in the spring, Netanyahu was afraid that Lieberman might form a government with Livni’s Kadima, thereby denying Netanyahu the premiership. His fears were compounded when Lieberman, in the middle of coalition negotiations, suddenly took off for Moldova, leaving everyone, including Netanyahu, guessing.
The tactics helped prompt Netanyahu to offer Lieberman the coveted post of foreign minister to lure him into the coalition.
While Lieberman has been sidelined overseas, both Netanyahu and Barak have been trying to keep Lieberman happy and in the loop. For example, immediately after his most recent meeting with special U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell on the settlements, Barak phoned Lieberman from London to update him.
The last thing Netanyahu and Barak want is for Lieberman to bolt the coalition. As long as Livni remains uninterested in joining the government, Lieberman’s departure could topple the government. In that context, covering for Lieberman as foreign minister is a small price to pay for keeping the government intact.
All this could change, of course, if Lieberman, who has been under intense police investigation for months, is indicted for corruption. That would leave the Foreign Ministry up for grabs and could spark new coalition discussions between Netanyahu and Livni. If Livni remains uninterested, her No. 2, former Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, might break ranks.
For weeks, Mofaz has been openly critical of Livni for not joining the Netanyahu government. If he is offered the prestigious Foreign Ministry post, Mofaz would have no qualms about breaking away from Kadima to take it.
At this point, however, any scenario without Lieberman is purely theoretical.