American Jewish leaders are increasingly jittery as Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman moves closer to becoming foreign minister in a right-wing coalition under Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu.
But most analysts say the appointment is unlikely to significantly disrupt U.S.-Israel relations, despite Lieberman’s reputation as an extremist.
And a right-of-center government with Lieberman at the foreign ministry is already producing speculation about a “Nixon in China” scenario.
“I firmly believe the history of peacemaking in Israel is the history of the right and the center right,” said Aaron David Miller, a Public Policy Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former State Department official who has been involved in U.S. Mideast peacemaking efforts since the late 1980s. “Doves talk the talk, hawks walk the walk.”
Miller, who has advocated stronger U.S. pressure to move Israel to the negotiating table, cited examples of right-wing Israeli leaders who produced peace process breakthroughs with the help of Democratic presidents in Washington. That includes Menachem Begin, who negotiated the Camp David accords under President Jimmy Carter and Yitzchak Rabin, the onetime hardliner who was party to the Oslo accords during President Bill Clinton’s administration.
Other pro-peace process activists paint a slightly different picture. A Lieberman appointment, they say, could contribute to other U.S. priorities in an environment in which peace process breakthroughs are seen as unlikely.
“I call it a moment of clarity,” said an official with one pro-peace process group who asked not to be identified. “It gives Washington a clearer target than a broad, weak coalition. Do you think this administration would have pushed a Livni-led government?”
In a backhanded way, this analyst said, the possibility of a right-of-center coalition with Lieberman, who advocates a two-state solution but also the removal of many Israeli Arabs who do not swear loyalty to the Jewish state, could provide a clear target for an administration that has concluded that conditions do not favor progress on the Israel-Palestinian front.
That could lead to more direct U.S. pressure on Israel on issues such as settlements and border crossings as part of its effort to gain credibility in the Arab and Islamic worlds — and possibly with the unstated motive of ensuring that the Netanyahu-Lieberman reign is a short one.
Opponents of new U.S. pressure on Israel envision much the same scenario, although they see it as a potential disaster for both countries.
Shoshana Bryen, senior director for security policy for the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA) said that an administration she believes is determined to pressure Israel as part of its greater Mideast policy might welcome Lieberman and his role in a hardline coalition under Netanyahu.
“From their point of view, it might be best for them to have the clearest possible statement of Israeli policy,” she said. “I imagine that from Lieberman we will get very clear statements on Israel’s red lines. Clarity will benefit everybody.”
The new administration might be unwilling to press a broad coalition that included Labor and Kadima, she said, but might have fewer reservations about squeezing a Netanyahu-Lieberman government.
Still, most analysts believe administration officials, preoccupied with domestic economic problems that are proving far worse than they initially believed, will be eager to find ways to accommodate themselves to the new government, however it shapes up. The fact almost nobody here sees any real openings for peace will make the adjustment easier.
The possibility of a Lieberman appointment in a right-wing coalition led by Netanyahu “won’t have a huge impact in Washington,” said Robert O. Freedman, a Mideast scholar at Johns Hopkins. “The current situation in the region is just so negative. And the new administration has so many other issues that take priority right now.”
This week there was frantic maneuvering in Jerusalem over the composition of the new government. On Monday there were reports Lieberman’s appointment as foreign minister was a done deal. By Wednesday the Israeli press was reporting a counter thrust by Likud officials furious that Yisrael Beiteinu seemed likely to get plum cabinet appointments, including the foreign ministry.
While Israeli press accounts say Lieberman still has the inside track, there is widespread speculation Netanyahu will largely keep the American portfolio to himself and take the lead in peace negotiations with the Palestinians and, possibly, Syria — something he did during his last tenure as prime minister.
Despite its desire to move ahead with Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, a Netanyahu-Lieberman lineup might offer some indirect benefits to the Obama administration, several pro-Israel activists said this week.
“It might give the administration something to push against,” said Daniel Levy, director of the Prospects for Peace Initiative of the Century Foundation — something it might not have with a Kadima-led government nominally committed to advancing negotiations, but paralyzed by coalition complications.
Publicly the administration is committed to both taking a more active role in the peace process and improving America’s standing in the Islamic and Arab worlds. But with Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts stalemated by the Hamas-Fatah division, it may focus more on the latter goal. Having a controversial figure like Lieberman in the foreign ministry might make it easier for the administration to “grandstand” by applying pressure on Israel on issues such as settlements and border crossings, Levy said.
And if the administration is serious about moving forward, “this is potentially a positive scenario,” he said. “When you have soft people in the room [in peace negotiations] you don’t get very far.”
Former negotiator Miller said that Lieberman’s own ambitions may lead to a quick moderation of his positions.
“If his real goal is to create a broader constituency from which to ascend to prime minister, then he will try to broaden, not narrow, his constituency and stake out, as Sharon did in his second incarnation, a broader platform to capture part of the center and try to make it his own,” Miller said. “But we don’t know; in the Middle East, sometimes, who you are actually is how you appear.”
And he said it is far from clear how hard or fast an administration beset with domestic woes would move on Mideast issues.
“You have a president presiding over the worst economic crisis in 70 years, who needs all his political capital and currency to fix it,” he said. “In the region, he faces a very nasty and grim situation; Hamas sits in Gaza, Hezbollah sits in Lebanon and Iran is moving closer to building nuclear weapons.”
Miller, author of the book “The Much Too Promised Land: America’s Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace,” said that with a new right-wing government likely in Israel, U.S. policy should emphasize finding ways to work with it — whether or not the controversial Lieberman gets the foreign ministry.
“It’s hard for me to see what we gain by publicly elevating the level of tension in the U.S.-Israeli relationship,” he said. “The gain is in trying to work with the next prime minister until it becomes clear that not only don’t we have any common ground, but that Israelis interests are actively subverting our interests. And Netanyahu will go to great lengths to avoid that point of reckoning.”
David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, agreed that Lieberman could quickly reposition himself if he becomes Israel’s chief diplomat and has to face a world that regards him as an anti-Arab extremist.
“What we’ve seen, historically, is that foreign ministers tend to evolve and mature in office more than any other cabinet ministers,” he said. “The $64,000 question is, will this be true of Lieberman?”
Makovsky said Lieberman’s positions have already evolved along with his rapid ascent in Israeli politics.
“Now, if he is foreign minister, he will be hearing in stereo about the need to reach an accommodation with the Palestinians,” he said. “The question is, will he listen?”
On this side of the ocean, Makovsky said, “the Obama administration is not looking to butt heads with Israel. I don’t think that’s where their gut is.”
Instead, Makovsky expects a strong effort to “look for overlap with the new government in terms of improving the situation on the ground, improving things economically on the West Bank, perhaps laying down some markers on settlements. They will not be interested in turning Lieberman into a punching bag; they will want to give him a chance.
“They will hope that if nothing else, the demands of being foreign minister will change the tone, if not the substance, of his remarks,” Makovsky continued. “They will see him as a shrewd person who wants to be successful, and they will work not to turn him into an enemy.”