Friday, April 03, 2009


Avigdor Lieberman Hits The Big Time

Israel's new foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman of the Yisra'el Beiteinu party ("Israel is our home"), gave his first speech yesterday -- and it seems to have attracted quite a bit of attention.

Daniel Pipes calls it "Avigdor Lieberman's Brilliant Debut". The BBC cheerfully chooses to emphasize the negative, remembering him as the "hard-liner" who told Hosni Mubarak to "go to hell"... and then paraphrases his speech to their liking without quoting it. (Actually, Lieberman had been rebuking Mubarak for never visiting Israel, in spite of a 30-year-old peace treaty, and 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." Context can be helpful.)

Israel's Ha'aretz asks "How Absurd Can Netanyahu's Government Get", citing Lieberman's status as Foreign Minister as a self-evident absurdity, not requiring further explanation. Others go further: al-Jazeera calls him an "ultra-nationalist"; Yasser Abed Rabbo, an aide to Fatah chief Mahmud Abbas, said "We are not obligated to hold talks with a racist hostile to peace like Lieberman".

I don't know; it sounds to me as though he's making all the right enemies.

Mind you, he's also antagonizing his friends: his predecessor, Tzippi Livni, said that he had wiped out years of diplomatic efforts in 20 seconds (and interrupted him during his speech!). I suspect he would respond that yes, that's exactly what he did, and it was intentional; see below.

So what did he say, actually? My initial response is to say that, yes, he's an amateur on the diplomatic world stage, with something of the bull-in-the-china-shop about him. On the other hand, he had some strong things to say, and he said them bluntly and forcefully at his first opportunity. Let's have a look.

Good afternoon, honorable outgoing Foreign Minister, honorable outgoing Deputy Foreign Minister, incoming Deputy Foreign Minister, Director-General Ministry employees, honored guests,

When my fellow students and I studied international relations, and learned what an international system is, we learned that there is a State and there are international organizations and all kinds of global economic corporations. Things have changed since then and, unfortunately, in the modern system, there are countries that are semi-states. It is hard to call a country like Somalia a state in the full sense of the word and the same holds true for the various autonomies in Eastern Europe, in the Balkans and here as well. It is even hard to call a country like Iraq a state in the full sense of the word. And even worse, there are now international players that are irrational, like the Al Qaeda organization. And we can certainly also ask if the leader of a strong and important country like Iran is a rational player.

Hmm... not a strong beginning. He depicts himself as a student, underlying his status as an amateur in his new job. He insults several countries, including the emerging democracy in Iraq, by calling them "semi-states", with no indication as to why, nor what this implies in terms of Israel's future dealings with them.

(Granted, Israel has no diplomatic relations with Somalia or with Iraq that I know of. Israel has a long history of trying to make friends and getting rebuffed; perhaps Lieberman is simply declaring that he's not that sort of foreign minister. Israelis have a reputation for bluntness, do we not?)

In my view, we must explain to the world that the priorities of the international community must change, and that all the previous benchmarks - the Warsaw Pact, the NATO Alliance, socialist countries, capitalist countries - have changed. There is a world order that the countries of the free world are trying to preserve, and there are forces, or countries or extremist entities that are trying to violate it.

That's a reasonable message -- we have been viewing foreign relations using outdated paradigms, and it's time we saw things as they are and treated them accordingly. Again, though, I think he's making some strong statements without backing them up, which does not do much to persuade anyone. (Is he trying to be persuasive? One could argue that, as Israel's top diplomat, that's his job.)

The claim that what is threatening the world today is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a way of evading reality. The reality is that the problems are coming from the direction of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq.

Well, I like that first sentence. In my opinion, he should have explained that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the distraction Arab totalitarian regimes use to distract their subjects from problems at home. Instead, he names Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq as world threats... which, to me, is heavy-handed at best. (Iraq is not currently an exporter of terror, the way it used to be under Saddam and the way Iran still is; mentioning them together is hardly fair.)

What is important is to maintain global and regional stability. Egypt is definitely an important country in the Arab world, a stabilizing factor in the regional system and perhaps even beyond that, and I certainly view it as an important partner. I would be happy to visit Egypt and to host Egyptian leaders here, including the Egyptian Foreign Minister - all based on mutual respect.

By contrast, this looks as though he's sucking up to Egypt now. (If so, it's not working.) Is he trying to compensate for his "go to hell" comment? (On the other hand, it's notable that he's inviting the Egyptian Foreign Minister, not President Mubarak.)

"What's important is to maintain global and regional stability" -- this sounds like the return of realpolitik, not what I'd expect from him. Let's continue.

I think that we have been disparaging many concepts, and we have shown the greatest disdain of all for the word “peace.” The fact that we say the word “peace” twenty times a day will not bring peace any closer.

Amen! He is now indirectly accusing previous Israeli governments -- and his direct predecessor -- of talking too much. Moreover, he says that merely talking about peace, while not taking the necessary steps to bring peace closer, shows disdain for peace -- a profound thought indeed.

There have been two governments here that took far-reaching measures: the Sharon government and the Olmert government. They took dramatic steps and made far-reaching proposals. We saw the Disengagement and the Annapolis Conference.

Yisrael Beiteinu was not then part of the coalition, Avigdor Liberman was not the foreign minister and, even if we had wanted to, we would have been unable to prevent peace. But none of these far-reaching measures have brought peace. To the contrary. We have seen that, after all the gestures that we made, after all the dramatic steps we took and all the far-reaching proposals we presented, in the past few years this country has gone through the Second War in Lebanon and Operation Cast Lead - and not because we chose to.

(emphasis mine)

His self-serving comments (and third-person self-reference) aside, he is now getting to the important point of his speech. Israeli concessions have not brought peace; from an historical perspective, it would be hard to deny this.

I have not seen peace here. It is precisely when we made all the concessions that I saw the Durban Conference, I saw two countries in the Arab world suddenly sever relations, recalling their ambassadors - Mauritania and Qatar. Qatar suddenly became extremist.

We are also losing ground every day in public opinion. Does anyone think that concessions and constantly saying “I am prepared to concede,” and using the word “peace” will lead to anything? No, that will just invite pressure, and more and more wars. "Si vis pacem, para bellum" - if you want peace, prepare for war; be strong.

An interesting response to Israel's critics. Lieberman here reminds us that "peace through strength" is not a typical Israeli position, at least not today... but that it certainly did not originate with Israel, and in fact has history to support it.

We definitely want peace, but the other side also bears responsibility. We have proven our desire for peace more than any other country in the world. No country has made concessions the way Israel has. Since 1977, we have given up areas of land three times the size of the State of Israel. So we have proven the point.

Awkwardly worded, perhaps, but he's absolutely right. Pre-1967 Israel was 20700 square kilometers in size; in 1967 Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula (61,100 square kilometers), and gave it all to Egypt in 1979 in return for a peace treaty.

Even if you include the West Bank etc. in your calculations, post-1967 Israel was roughly 89,277 square kilometers in size; giving up the Sinai and the Gaza Strip reduced Israel's size by nearly 70%. Is there another country on Earth that has done such a thing voluntarily?

The Oslo process began in 1993. Sixteen years have passed since then, and I do not see that we are any closer to a permanent settlement. There is one document that binds us and it is not the Annapolis Conference. That has no validity. When we drafted the basic government policy guidelines, we certainly stated that we would honor all the agreements and all the undertakings of previous governments. The continuity of government is respected in Israel. I voted against the Road Map, but that was the only document approved by the Cabinet and by the Security Council - I believe it was Resolution 1505. It is a binding resolution and it binds this government as well.

The Israeli government never approved Annapolis, neither the Cabinet nor the Knesset, so anyone who wants to amuse himself can continue to do so. I have seen all the proposals made so generously by Ehud Olmert, but I have not seen any results.

This seems to be the part that has Israel's critics apoplectic -- Israel is repudiating the Annapolis agreements!

As others have pointed out, Lieberman is wrong here -- Israel's cabinet did approve the Annapolis agreement. (He was there, as Minister for Strategic Affairs, so he should know better.)

Nonetheless, he has an important point to make here regarding the lack of validity of the Annapolis agreement in 2009, and he has logic on his side. Read the text: those parts of it that are not pleasant-sounding platitudes ("we agree to launch bilateral talks"; "we express our determination to bring an end to bloodshed") have largely been superseded by events. Negotiations with Mahmud Abbas do not apply to Palestinian areas controlled by Hamas, as Hamas has repeatedly avowed.

In other words, Annapolis is dead... and Lieberman is simply the first world diplomat to say so publicly.

He is careful, however, to make it clear than an alternative still exists:

So we will therefore act exactly according to the Road Map, including the Tenet document and the Zinni document. I will never agree to our waiving all the clauses - I believe there are 48 of them - and going directly to the last clause, negotiations on a permanent settlement. No. These concessions do not achieve anything. We will adhere to it to the letter, exactly as written. Clauses one, two, three, four - dismantling terrorist organizations, establishing an effective government, making a profound constitutional change in the Palestinian Authority. We will proceed exactly according to the clauses.
(link and emphasis mine)

Kudos to him for referring back to the Road Map -- an agreement he repudiated at the time -- and making it clear that he will take no liberties with it. (We'll have to watch and see if he keeps that promise, of course.)

We also see an interesting political development here. An American Secretary of State would not say "I will never agree", as he does, because American cabinet secretaries serve at the pleasure of the President, who can hire and fire them. In Israeli politics, however, Lieberman is not just the new Foreign Minister; he's the head of Yisra'el Beiteinu, which won 15 seats in the recent elections. Prime Minister Netanyahu cannot simply tell Lieberman "I set foreign policy here, not you", as an American President would; if Netanyahu pushes Lieberman too hard, Lieberman will walk away from the Cabinet, taking his 15 seats with him, leaving Netanyahu's government ripe for a no-confidence vote.

We are also obligated to implement what is required of us in each clause, but so is the other side. They must implement the document in full, including - as I said - the Zinni document and the Tenet document. I am not so sure that the Palestinian Authority or even we - in those circles that espouse peace so much - are aware of the existence of the Tenet and Zinni documents.

His insistence on the Tenet and Zinni agreements is interesting. What do they contain that the Roadmap does not? Mostly they contain specific details -- a commitment by Israel to redeploy and to explore non-lethal methods of crowd control, a commitment by the Palestinians to clamp down on incitement and to stop weapons smuggling and terrorism, and so on.

When was Israel at its strongest in terms of public opinion around the world? After the victory of the Six Day War, not after all the concessions in Oslo Accords I, II, III and IV. Anyone who wants to maintain his status in public opinion must understand that if he wants respect, he must first respect himself. I think that, at least from our standpoint, will be our policy.
A weak ending to a problematic speech... but nonetheless, he's trying to demonstrate, to Israelis, that it has been Israel's victories, not her concessions, that have won her support.

It will be interesting to see the long-term reactions to this speech, and to Israel's actions going forward. No doubt Lieberman, and Netanyahu, and Israel, will be vilified all over the world; no doubt people will condemn Israelis for electing such people into office. (I'm willing to bet that such sentiments will come from the same people who insisted that Hamas had been elected, and thus must be honored and respected.)

But will Israel pursue a policy of peace through strength, showing respect to others only insofar as she is herself respected? And if so, will this produce results? I'm optimistic, but time will tell. Time will also tell if Avigdor Lieberman can learn to soften his hard edges a bit. (Perhaps he won't; Israel already has a top diplomat, with plenty of diplomatic experience on the world stage, named Benjamin Netanyahu. It will be interesting to see how they work together.)

But speaking for myself, as an Israeli who has bemoaned a weak Israeli government at just the time when strength is needed -- well, it looks as though that has changed. In the words of Daniel Pipes, Israel's back.

UPDATE: Jeff Jacoby also liked the speech. (Frankly, I thought Mr. Jacoby uses Lieberman's points to make a better case than Lieberman did. Have a look and see for yourself.)

Hat tip: Solomonia



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