by Marsha B. Cohen
After a lovefest in Israel with French President Francois Hollande from Sunday to Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took a shower, packed his suitcase and headed for Moscow, ostensibly to lobby against Russian support for a deal with Iran. He met with Vladimir Putin, held a joint press conference with the Russian President, and returned home the same day with little to show for his trouble.
Russia has been providing the weapons that support the Assad regime, and that Israel bombed last week to keep them from getting to Hezbollah. Russia has backed Iran’s claims that its nuclear program is peaceful. Did Netanyahu really think he could change two decades of Russian foreign policy on Iran with a few more hours of haranguing?
“Russia and China were the ones that, until now, did not take action to increase sanctions,” complained Justice Minister Tzipi Livni to Israel Radio. “Therefore it is hard for me to see how, suddenly today, they could be the ones to demand that the world be firmer with the Iranians.”
Most interesting — and revealing — about Netanyahu’s trip to Russia is that he himself made it, and not Israel’s Russia-born foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman. Lieberman heads Israel’s Yisrael Beiteinu (“Israel is our home”) party– composed largely of Russian emigrants to Israel. Cleared of corruption charges two weeks ago, Lieberman was reinstated as Foreign Minister on Nov. 11.
During his tenure as Foreign Minister before the 10- month hiatus that ended a little over a week ago, Lieberman has publicly contradicted Israel’s stated foreign policy positions. During an official visit to China in March 2012, Lieberman declared in a speech that received no coverage in the U.S. press and hardly any in Israel: “If, God forbid, a war with Iran breaks out, it will be a nightmare. And we will all be in it, including the Persian Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia. No one will remain unscathed.”
Lieberman’s 2009 suggestion that Israel should continue to fight Hamas “just like the United States did with the Japanese in World War II” was widely understood to be an allusion to the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with nuclear weapons. Lieberman infuriated Netanyahu, other cabinet ministers and coalition members, as well as opposition leaders, and took the U.S. by surprise, when, in a speech before the UN in 2010, he derided the prospects of a comprehensive peace agreement with the Palestinians as “unrealistic.”
However much he may aggravate Netanyahu, Lieberman is popular because he says aloud what many Israelis feel and many Israeli politicians actually believe. Lieberman’s version of a two-state solution with the Palestinians includes exchanging predominantly Arab towns and villages within “green line” Israel for the major West Bank settlement blocs. Lieberman has called for assassinating the leaders of the Hamas movement in Gaza (something which already has widespread support in theory and practice).
Not surprisingly, Lieberman’s return to the post of Foreign Minister last week was greeted with outrage by the governing coalition’s left-wing opposition and by Arab parties. Meretz chairwoman Zahava Gal-On compared Lieberman’s appointment to head the Foreign Ministry to “planting a bomb in the diplomatic process” that would “further worsen Israel’s poor relations with its allies and its situation in the international community.” Knesset member Jamal Zahalka of the Arab Balad party recommended that Palestinians break off negotiations in response to Lieberman’s reappointment, and MK Ahmed Tibi of the United Arab List-Ta’al opined that Lieberman’s restoration to his post was entirely appropriate for “a government where everyone competes over who will be more fanatic.”
So why did Netanyahu restore Lieberman, whose popularity threatens his own, to such a powerful post? Without Yisrael Beiteinu, which merged with Netanyahu’s Likud party in October 2012 in an effort to revive it, Likud would have been relegated to a relatively minor party in the January 2013 election. Together, the two parties garnered a total of only 31 seats in Israel’s 120-member Knesset (parliament), not the 45-50 seats political pundits had anticipated, and far fewer than they had gotten separately in 2009, when Likud by itself won Knesset 27 seats and Yisrael Beiteinu 15. Votes were diverted to two “young guns” on Israel’s political scene — the ideologically flexible Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”) party and Habayit Heyudai (Jewish Home), an ultra-hawkish right-wing religious nationalist party. Both are demanding more power within the government coalition in keeping with their relative representation in the Knesset.
Without Lieberman, Netanyahu would not have a governing coalition and might be forced to call new elections. As it is, Yisrael Beiteinu is scheduled to meet and discuss the possibility of a divorce from Likud on Nov. 24. There is considerable speculation that Lieberman aspires to the premiership in the not too distant future.
It could be a real game-changer for members of both House of the U.S. Congress, Democrats and Republicans, who are deferential, even obsequious toward Netanyahu were the silver-haired, silver-tongued Likud leader to be replaced with a former night-club bouncer with a thick Russian accent who says Israel doesn’t need the U.S. and can find allies elsewhere. In a speech on Nov. 20, Lieberman downplayed the role of the U.S. as Israel’s foremost sponsor: “For many years Israel’s foreign policy was one directional towards Washington, but my policy has many more directions.”
Not European countries, whose foreign policies he would expect to lean against Israel on account of their relatively small Jewish minorities and relatively large Muslim populations. Nor the Gulf Arabs. Instead, according to Lieberman, it would be “countries that don’t need financial assistance and aren’t beholden to the Arab world,” countries that would support Israel out of their own cold and pragmatic interests in gaining access to Israeli high tech innovations, not out of altruism. The most likely candidates for Israel’s New Best Friends: China and Russia.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu, in Russia, not only demonstrated that Israel doesn’t need the U.S. just as well as Avigdor Lieberman could have, but he did it on Lieberman’s native turf. Netanyahu’s Russia visit can be viewed as a pre-emptive strike — not against Iran, but rather against Netanyahu’s frenemy within: the once and future kingmaker, and perhaps even Prime Minister, Avigdor Lieberman.