Israel pledged allegiance on Wednesday to its special relationship with the United States, now tested by pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran, after Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman appeared to question the strength of the tie.
Any notion that Lieberman’s comments, in a speech on Wednesday, meant that Israel was looking for new friends at the expense of its bonds with its longtime main ally and military aid provider was challenged by the minister’s own deputy.
While his blunt-speaking boss was left behind in Israel, Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin was in Moscow with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who lobbied Russian President Vladimir Putin against a prospective deal between world powers and Iran now being weighed at talks in Geneva.
“No, I would not suggest reaching far-reaching conclusions that we will now replace our main ally, and that that is the aim of the visit,” Elkin told Israeli Army Radio from the Russian capital. “Even when there are disagreements over this issue or another … there is no one who can take the place of the Americans,” he said.
Elkin is a member of Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party. Lieberman heads the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party in the governing coalition.
Netanyahu is locked in his most serious dispute yet with U.S. President Barack Obama over the Iranian nuclear issue. His talks with Putin and French President Francois Hollande, who visited Israel this week, were seen by some Israeli media commentators as a snub to Washington.
The Israeli leader, calling for a dismantling of Iran’s nuclear enrichment capabilities, says any agreement to ease sanctions against Iran in return for only curbs on its activities would still enable Tehran to build an atomic bomb.
Iran says its nuclear energy programme is completely peaceful. Israel, Iran’s arch-enemy, is widely thought to have the Middle East’s only nuclear weaponry.
Lieberman, in his first speech as foreign minister after his acquittal last week on corruption charges, suggested that Washington’s relations with Israel were taking a back seat to other challenges, such as Iran and domestic economic problems.
“It should be understood … that the link with our greatest strategic ally, the United States, its link with Israel, is waning,” Lieberman told an economic conference.
It was time, he added, for Israel to shift from a “unidirectional foreign policy” toward a “diverse policy” of seeking better relations with other countries, which he did not name.
While publicly critical of the Obama adminisration’s pursuit of what Netanyahu has described as an “exceedingly bad deal” with Iran, the premier and other Israeli officials have insisted the decades-long alliance with Washington remained strong.
As foreign minister in Netanyahu’s previous government, Lieberman raised hackles at home and abroad over comments questioning the loyalty of Israel’s Arab minority and calling for the removal of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
In the past, Netanyahu largely kept Lieberman on the sidelines of Israel’s dealings with the United States, its main military aid provider, and the European Union, its biggest trading partner.
But Lieberman’s stronger political partnership with Netanyahu - their parties ran together in last January’s national election - could make it difficult for the prime minister to muffle the outspoken hardliner.