Washington — Israel’s choice for its new top diplomat — controversial politician Avigdor Lieberman — can expect a businesslike welcome from America’s foreign-policy community.
Lieberman signed a coalition agreement with Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu on March 16, promising him the foreign minister’s portfolio. He was elected to the Knesset on a platform that would require a loyalty oath as a condition of Israeli citizenship. He has suggested transferring Israeli-Arab population centers to the control of a future Palestinian state.
Experts believe that despite Lieberman’s views — considered well out of the mainstream of American policy — he will not encounter any problems in dealing with Washington.
“I don’t think we will see a lot of face-to-face confrontation, unless he wants that,” said Samuel Lewis, a former American ambassador to Israel who is now an adviser to the Israel Policy Forum. “I don’t think the administration will be looking for a fight with him.”
Lieberman’s expected appointment as foreign minister will require the administration to deal with two separate issues: his views on the Israeli-Arab peace process, and his remarks regarding Israeli Arabs. For now, Washington seems prepared to dismiss the latter as a domestic Israeli issue while focusing on Lieberman’s approach to the peace process.
“I don’t think that by default the fact that Netanyahu is prime minister and Lieberman is foreign minister will produce a fight,” said Aaron David Miller, a former State Department peace negotiator who is currently a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “The administration will respond to this government by virtue of what it does, and that will be determined by Netanyahu.”
In his transition from firebrand candidate to prospective senior Cabinet member, Lieberman launched a visible effort to present his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as being within the acceptable mainstream discourse, while blurring controversial remarks he has made in the past.
In a March 1 interview with Washington Post correspondent Lally Weymouth, Lieberman went as far as pointing to a picture of his home settlement of Nokdim in the Judean desert and stating, “I even agree to vacate my settlement if there really will be a two-state solution.”
According to Lieberman’s approach, a two-state solution could be achieved only after there is a complete end of terror on the Palestinian side. He proposed that when an independent Palestinian state is created, Israel will swap land and population with it, making Israeli settlement blocks and their Jewish settlers part of Israel, and transferring Arab-Israeli towns with their residents, who are now Israeli citizens, to the Palestinian state. After being criticized for what was seen as a forced deportation of Arab citizens of Israel, Lieberman made clear that the move should be “voluntary.”
Danny Ayalon, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington who was recently elected to the Knesset as a member of Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, said those who accuse Lieberman of holding extreme views simply don’t understand him. “There is a huge gap between perception and reality,” Ayalon said in a telephone interview with the Forward. The former ambassador is slated to be deputy foreign minister under Lieberman once the new government is presented. “When people will get to know him, the perception will be gone and what will remain is the substance,” he added.
Ayalon views his party leader’s take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as “similar to that of [former prime minister Ariel] Sharon.” Moreover, he said, Lieberman “can be an excellent player in the international scene,” thanks to what he describes as “his knowledge of both Russian and American mentality.”
In his former position as Cabinet minister in charge of strategic threats, Lieberman visited Washington and met with top Bush administration officials, including former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, and former national security adviser Stephen Hadley and his deputy, Elliott Abrams. Israeli sources described the talks at the time as positive.
While he has maintained a cautious stance on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, at least in recent months, Lieberman was far from displaying restraint when it came to voicing his views on Israel’s Arab citizens or its Palestinian neighbors.
Recent media reports in Israel indicate that Lieberman had been a member of Meir Kahane’s Kach movement, which was outlawed in Israel because of its racist positions. Some statements by the foreign minister-designate seem to echo themes that are strongly anti-Arab.
After an Israeli release of Palestinian prisoners in 2003, Lieberman said he would “rather throw them in the Dead Sea.” In 2005, he called for an Israeli “disengagement from Umm al-Fahm,” the country’s largest Arab city. He also suggested that Arab members of Knesset who met with Hamas officials should be executed as “collaborators.”
On the diplomatic front, Lieberman made only a few statements. He did, however, have some harsh words for Egypt that led to formal apologies from Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, and its prime minister, Ehud Olmert. Complaining about the fact that Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, refrains from visiting Israel, Lieberman said, “If he wants to talks to us, he should come here, and if he doesn’t want to come, he can go to hell.” He also warned, in 2001, that if Egypt turns its back on Israel, the Israelis should consider bombing the Aswan dam on the Nile River, an act that would be potentially disastrous to Egypt.
According to Daniel Kurtzer, America’s ambassador in Israel from 2001 to 2005, Lieberman’s past rhetoric will matter less than his current approach as Israel’s top diplomat. “People will meet with him and discuss issues based on what he is saying, not based on his reputation,” said Kurtzer, who has had several meetings with Lieberman. Still, “he will have somewhat of an uphill battle to prove he is part of the mainstream.”
Kurtzer, a Middle East affairs adviser to Barack Obama during America’s last presidential campaign, said that the administration will not insist on looking into Lieberman’s past statements on issues relating to Israeli Arabs’ human rights as long as Lieberman himself doesn’t go back to his past language. “But if he keeps it on his agenda, it will be on our agenda, as well,” Kurtzer said.