Friday, April 3, 2009

The New Israeli Foreign Minister Makes Waves

If nothing else, Israel's new Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman knows how to make an entrance. In his inaugural speech, the new FM threw around some scary language that this interesting analysis describes as reminiscent of Ariel Sharon in the era before Sharon unilaterally withdrew from Gaza. Scary language in this case, is the assertion that Israel is not bound by the peace talks in Annapolis but rather is only bound by the "road map" to peace. Of greatest concern, however, may be the line from Lieberman's address: ""Si vis pacem, para bellum" - if you want peace, prepare for war; be strong." Albert Einstein, a man who it may be safe to assume, was brighter than most people in politics in the middle east today once said: "You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war." The poor man, who declined the opportunity to be Israel's first President, must be spinning in his grave.

Scary language aside, the main thrust of Lieberman's statements were that Israel has made concession after concession without any reciprocity from Palestinians and that it was time for Israel to demand compliance from Palestinians, in accordance with the road map, before Israel negotiates peace. On the face of it, it seems reasonable to say 'we've given so much, your turn.' Only, this is but half the picture. Israel has obligations too. Amongst others, stopping settlement activity beyond its 1967 borders. For a government that finds significant support amongst those inhabiting the settlements, acting on this Israeli obligation will be politically difficult.

Both good and bad can be read into Lieberman's statements. The bad, is the stepping away from international developments that have already taken place and suggesting that Israel is taking a wait and see approach vis-a-vis peace with the Palestinians. Peace requires proactivity and not so much "concessions" but gestures indicating sincerity. The good is that at least there is implicit recognition of the two-state solution by the new conservative Israeli Foreign Minister. The road map explicitly calls for this solution and Lieberman acknowledged Israel's being bound to it.

After making his comments to apparently stunned Israeli diplomats, Lieberman was immediately criticized by his predecessor who in a break with ceremonial niceties insisted that Israel was indeed bound by the Annapolis "Joint Understanding" (despite the fact that nobody really talks about it much) and called upon Netanyahu, the Prime Minister, to denounce Lieberman's comments. It will be very interesting to see if that really happens.

This does raise another point, though. Lieberman is one minister in the largest Israeli cabinet ever, and which includes both the right wing and the left wing Labour party. What this means is that Lieberman may talk a tough game, but the 'coach' may never actually let him play. There are so many competing interests in this new coalition that Lieberman's somewhat extremist voice may not find its way into policy. He may be disciplined by his Prime Minister. In all cases, observers should not be too quick to judge either Lieberman nor the rest of the Israeli government too quickly nor by their "opening statements." If Israeli history has taught anything, its that those in charge can make surprising decisions. It was, after all, the right wing Begin who signed the peace treaty with Egypt and Sharon who unilaterally pulled out from Gaza. The world may yet be surprised.

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