Sunday, April 5, 2009

More on Avigdor and the New Israeli Government

There was strong reaction from the Israeli opposition party, Kadima, to the inaugural speech by Israel's new foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman.

The outgoing Israeli Prime Minister, Olmert, was quick to make statements shoring-up his legacy by indicating that the Annapolis peace process--which Lieberman dismissed as non-binding to Israel--was indeed crucial as it marked the first time that representatives of Arab countries tacitly recognized the political fact of Israel simply by their attendance. More scathingly, the outgoing foreign Minister, Livni, commented that Lieberman had wiped out all efforts towards peace in just 20 seconds of his speech. She called on the new Prime Minister, Netanyahu, to disavow Lieberman's statements and has been critical that he so far has not.

An editorial in Ha'aretz worries about the costs Lieberman may have on Israel. It points out that even if Lieberman's comments are nothing more than talk, by "outflanking" the Prime Minister on the right, he risks alienating those around the world who may not wish to be associated with his positions, and this is support Israel may ultimately need.

The reason Netanyahu is not being more critical of Lieberman's comments is likely due to the fact that Lieberman's party is needed to keep Netanyahu and his Likud in power. If Lieberman bolted from the coalition government, or felt alienated and filibustered governance as a result of public criticism, the Israeli government could collapse, or, simply be paralyzed. Netanyahu has to play a careful game of allowing Lieberman to speak to the constituency that voted for him, without appearing too critical or allowing the world to believe that every extreme statement Lieberman makes is necessarily reflective of the Israeli government. Certainly, they are not, for two reasons.

1) In the first cabinet meeting amongst various domestic priorities, Netanyahu put advancing peace high on the agenda. If Lieberman seeks to prepare for war, Netanyahu, at least by the agenda of his first cabinet meeting, seems to be thinking peace.

2) Ehud Barak and the Labour party. Though he's been criticized by his own party for joining the government, Barak by his own words says he does not feel that he properly fits into the current Israeli government and is there as a moderating voice. It's his Labour brand of politics that prevents the 18th Knesset from drifting down a path away from peace.

Herein is the rub. Netanyahu needs Lieberman more than he needs Barak. This means that all the reining in of Lieberman will need to be done behind the scenes. Barak can help, and it was probably a good move in a helpful, peaceful direction, to have included Barak in the government. This means though, that the somewhat unpolished and unhelpful statements from Lieberman may continue until Netanyahu can crack the whip and keep his foreign minister in line. In the interim, however, it should be remembered that final decisions are made by Prime Ministers, not Foreign Ministers. For the time being, the words of the experienced statesman, Netanyahu, carry more weight than his politically necessary sidekick, Lieberman.

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