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Israel Right-Winger Avigdor Lieberman Avoids Missteps in First U.S. Visit as Defense Minister

Walking on eggshells, a skeptical American administration and a top Israeli politician prone to making shocking policy statements survived their first encounter; they may have even set a foundation for better future relations.

Both sides saw Avigdor Lieberman’s maiden visit to the United States in his new role as Israel’s defense minister as a test, and both seem to have made the most of it.

In a sign of its determination to set a new tone, the Pentagon made one of its private jets available to Lieberman, who shuttled among New York; Washington, and Fort Worth, Texas, during his four-day visit — his first abroad anywhere as defense minister.

It was a gesture that was not lost on Lieberman and his team. “This is unusual,” said an Israeli official briefing the press after Lieberman’s meetings in Washington, “maybe an indication that they are making every effort to keep a friendly atmosphere.”

Lieberman, focusing solely on defense matters, steered clear of controversial issues that have earned him a reputation as an extremist, such as his call for a “loyalty oath” for Israeli citizens. There was not a word from him, either, about his proposal to strip Israeli Palestinians of their citizenship as part of a future deal for a Palestinian state.

“Lieberman is looking far ahead, and he understands the significance of having good relations with the Americans for any future leader of Israel,” said Gadi Shamni, a retired Israeli major general who served as Israel’s military attaché in Washington and in many other top Israel Defense Forces posts. “That’s why he is seeking to improve his image and to establish strong connections with the Americans.”

The difference in Lieberman’s public demeanor was clear from the moment he landed in New York on June 19. The leader of Israel’s right-leaning Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) party made few public statements during his visit and cut his media appearances to a bare minimum. He even eschewed press coverage of his stop at Arlington National Cemetery to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. He instead focused solely on his new portfolio and discussed only issues relating to Israeli-American defense cooperation.

The buttoned-down discipline was, in a way, Lieberman’s response to the concerns administration officials raised publicly in May, when he was appointed to his post. Back then, State Department spokesman Mark Toner warned that Lieberman’s appointment and the accompanying reshuffle of Israel’s governing coalition had led to “the most right-wing coalition in Israel’s history.” The inclusion of Lieberman and his party, Toner added, “raises legitimate questions about the direction [Israel] may be headed in.”

During Lieberman’s two earlier stints as Israel’s foreign minister, his policy pronouncements and record of bellicose statements led the Obama administration to avoid contact with him. Senior administration officials found alternative channels to the Israeli government. But as defense minister, Lieberman demonstrated a desire to turn over a new leaf with the administration.

“Talking to the Pentagon is very different than talking to the State Department,” an Israeli official said after Lieberman’s meeting with Defense Secretary Ashton Carter on June 20. “The Palestinian issue isn’t even on the table at the Pentagon; they want to talk about things on which we see eye to eye, such as intelligence and technological cooperation, joint military work on all levels. That makes a huge difference.”

Lieberman even staked out a maverick, pro-U.S. stand on one of the key issues bedeviling Israeli-American relations — a 10-year American military aid package to Israel that has been the object of endless wrangling. The new defense minister voiced support for a swift conclusion to the talks, which effectively made him an ally of the Obama administration. Washington has been pressing Israel to sign the new deal, estimated at $40 billion. But Netanyahu, U.S. officials believe, has been deliberately dragging out the negotiations.

As Lieberman winged his way back to Tel Aviv, he did so with valuable gains. These included a great photo opportunity at the rolling out of Israel’s newly purchased F-35 fighters to rebut critics who question his military credentials, and a budding relationship with the American defense establishment — proof that he is no longer a political pariah to Israel’s most important ally.

“People in the defense establishment always value the ability to be pragmatic,” Shamni said, “and with Lieberman the Americans see the potential of unlinking his ideological beliefs from his pragmatic approach.”

Contact Nathan Guttman at [email protected] or on Twitter, @nathanguttman

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