Next month’s expected Washington visit by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could prove awkward for pro-Israel groups here and explosive for the Obama administration, largely because of the early bombshells dropped by his new foreign minister, Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman.
Days after taking office, Lieberman summarily discarded the results of the 2007 Annapolis peace conference and warned outsiders not to meddle in Israeli policy and politics.
That poses a dilemma for an administration widely seen as hoping to avoid clashes with Israel, and it’s an even more immediate problem for pro-Israel groups that have been trying to soften Lieberman’s rough edges and generate at least a facade of unity behind the new government.
Even some supporters say Lieberman’s outspokenness could be a problem.
Daniel Pipes,president of the Middle East Forum, said he was “elated” by Lieberman’s inaugural speech as foreign minister.
But he added that Lieberman is an “aggressive politician who speaks candidly on a range of subjects. That is a concern many — myself included — feel.”
Opponents say they won’t stop criticizing Lieberman just because he is now Israel’s top diplomat.
Lieberman “is what he is; he stands for what he stands for,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive director of J Street, a year-old pro-peace process lobby and political action committee. Last week J Street stirred ire among major pro-Israel leaders with a Lieberman attack video that included clips of some of his most controversial statements, some filmed in ominous black and white. “It doesn’t benefit the Jewish community here or Israel to pretend we don’t have a fundamental disagreement.”
The J Street stance on Lieberman has gotten support from some unlikely sources.
Atlantic columnist Jeffrey Goldberg, seen by many as a pro-Israel hardliner, wrote in his blog this week that “J Street got it right on Lieberman. Among other things, the rise of Avigdor Lieberman could rupture relations between many American Jews and Israel.”
But other Jewish leaders say J Street is hurting Israel and the cause of strong U.S.-Israel relations.
“It doesn’t help Israel,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. In a February Jewish Week Opinion piece Harris called some of Lieberman’s views “deeply irresponsible at best.” But today he is part of the pro-Israel consensus calling on American Jews and the new administration to give his government a chance. “We need much more focus on the eight ball; what does demonizing the new foreign minister get you?”
Some observers say those who are trying to repackage Lieberman as a misunderstood moderate are taking a chance.
“It’s a big gamble because he is a loose cannon,” said Marc Gopin, a blogger at marcgopin.com and director of the Center on Religion, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University. “Not only has he acted in ways seen as radical and extremist, not only is he under investigation for corruption, but he also constantly tries to keep himself in the news. So the embarrassment could be big time.”
But Lieberman may prove to be an even bigger problem for Netanyahu, he predicted.
“Netanyahu is a pragmatist,” he said. “He could probably do business with [U.S. special envoy George] Mitchell. It’s inconceivable Mitchell could do business with Lieberman.”
The result could be an eventual “realignment” in Netanyahu’s government, he said, if Obama follows through on his peace process promises — and if, as many expect, Netanyahu seeks to avoid a conflict with the new administration.
The potential for a U.S.-Israel clash could grow if there are indications Lieberman’s views on Annapolis and his interpretation of the “road map” are seen as official policy of the new government.
“The first test will be when Bibi comes to Washington,” said Seymour Reich, a former chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and of the Israel Policy Forum. “There’s no way he can get away with rejecting Annapolis; the prior government did approve it, despite what Lieberman said.”
Judith Kipper, director of Mideast programs for the Institute of World Affairs, said the Netanyahu-Lieberman relationship may evolve into a “good cop-bad cop routine.” While Lieberman continues appealing to the Israeli right with harsh rhetoric, “Netanyahu will probably tell the president what he wants to hear: that his government is committed to peace, to the road map. But the shift in rhetoric will be an issue with this administration. And the issue of settlements will be an issue.”
American Jewish groups that were hoping Lieberman would end his penchant for controversy once he became Israel’s top diplomat got a rude awakening last week.
One of Lieberman’s first public pronouncements seemed like an almost calculated slap at a new administration — he said the 2007 Annapolis conference, a key element in ongoing U.S. peace efforts, “has no validity” because it was not ratified by Knesset.
On Tuesday Israel’s new top diplomat, sounding distinctly undiplomatic, let loose another barrage, telling leaders of his Yisrael Beiteinu party that he rejects outside interference in Israeli politics.
“We have never interfered in the affairs of others, and we expect from others that they not interfere in ours,” he said, according to wire service reports. “I do not expect from others that they have a stopwatch in hand and tell Israel when it must produce a responsible political program.”
While saying Israel would abide by the road map, he told the Haaretz newspaper that it need comply with its terms only after the Palestinians “confront terror, take control of Gaza and demilitarize Hamas.”
President Obama, in the middle of an inaugural presidential swing through Europe and Turkey, responded quickly.
“Let me be clear: the United States strongly supports the goal of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security,” he said. “That is a goal shared by Palestinians, Israelis, and people of good will around the world. That is a goal that the parties agreed to in the road map and at Annapolis. And that is a goal that I will actively pursue as president.”
For the administration, the crunch could come early next month, when Netanyahu is expected to be in Washington to address the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) — and probably for his first official meeting with Obama.
But for Jewish groups, the crunch is right now.
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, founder and president of The Israel Project, conceded that Lieberman, dramatically different from the suave, Americanized Netanyahu, is a lightning rod for many American Jews.
“Different can be scary,” said Laszlo Mizrahi, whose group works with media to present Israel favorably. “There were people who thought Barack Hussein Obama was scary because of his middle name.”
But ultimately, the issue is “Prime Minister Netanyahu, and what his new government stands for and what it will deliver in terms of peace and security for Israel and its neighbors.”
Instead of worrying about Lieberman, she said, Jewish groups should be focusing on “the fact this prime minister wants to create a better economic future for the Palestinians, which is tough to do at a time when Israel itself is experiencing massive unemployment.”
She echoed another theme of mainstream pro-Israel groups: Lieberman isn’t the radical firebrand portrayed in the press.
“I think one of his most significant quotes was that if there’s a sustainable peace, he would give up his own home. How many political leaders can say something like that?”
But longtime pro-Israel activist Seymour Reich said, “You just can’t overlook what Lieberman says and does. If he continues his past recalcitrance and if he does not modify his views, it’s hard to see how the community will be able to effectively support this new government.”
While most pro-Israel groups are taking a wait-and-see attitude to the new government, J Street lashed out with its recent video and a statement that threw down the gauntlet to other Jewish groups.
“We as an organization cannot and will not remain silent in the months and years ahead should Israel adopt anything like the policies and views outlined by Avigdor Lieberman as a candidate and politician prior to entering the Foreign Minister’s office,” Jeremy Ben-Ami, said in a statement. “Those views — particularly towards the minority Arab citizenry of Israel — are in our opinion contrary to both our democratic and our Jewish values. Not only will we ourselves make our views clear, but we will urge other Americans, Jews and Jewish organizations to do so as well.”
The AJC’s David Harris rejected J Street’s frontal assault, and its controversial video in particular.
“I’m not sure what they accomplished by trying to demonize the new Israeli foreign minister,” he said “He was portrayed in the worst possible way; the images seemed chosen to portray him as a dark, almost demonic figure. He’s there, give him a chance, judge him not by what he says by what this government does.”
But Harris conceded Lieberman will continue to stir controversy in an American Jewish community divided over key peace process issues.
“The debate will happen whether we want it or not, and fairly or unfairly, his name will loom large,” he said.