Liberman’s acquittal and the peace process
Avigdor Liberman’s reinstatement as the Foreign Minister following his acquittal may be looked at unfavorably by Western diplomats, notably US Secretary of State John Kerry, trying to broker a deal between Israelis and the Palestinians.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had just begun his meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry at the David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem Wednesday morning when three judges in the Jerusalem Magistrates Court just up the street announced the acquittal of once and future foreign minister Avigdor Liberman.
Netanyahu was handed a note in the middle of his discussion with Kerry, and he stopped the meeting briefly. He spoke by phone to Liberman, congratulating him and saying that he was happy to have him back around the cabinet table.
Nothing was said of Kerry’s reaction, though the assumption is that he was probably less thrilled than Netanyahu – not because he wished Liberman any harm, but because conventional wisdom holds that a resurrected Liberman is bad for the peace process Kerry is trying so hard to push forward.
Like all conventional wisdom, however, this assumption deserves scrutiny.
Does the acquittal of Liberman, who just a year ago called Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas a “liar, coward and wimp,” give a much needed boost to the languishing diplomatic talks? Obviously not.
But keep in mind the talks were languishing before the acquittal, and not because of Liberman.
There are a couple of things to keep in mind regarding Liberman and the peace process. The first is that he definitely does not think that what was tried in the past – striving through negotiations for a comprehensive agreement – has any chance of success.
He did not believe this would work when he first took over the Foreign Ministry in April 2009, and he does not think so now.
But it is instructive to see what happened in 2009. In an unprecedented move, Liberman – the country’s foreign minister – essentially rescued himself from dealing with the Palestinian issue, saying that he had a conflict of interest because he lived in the small settlement of Nokdim.
Liberman made clear that he had no problems with then defense minister Ehud Bark dealing with then US special envoy George Mitchell on the Palestinian file. Saying at the time that the Palestinian issue was taking up too much of Israeli’s time and energy, and that as foreign minister he wanted to concentrate on other issues, he flew off to South America, Africa and Eastern Europe – concentrating on what he said were the more traditional roles of the foreign ministry.
Liberman created a somewhat bizarre situation: On the one hand he said that he did not believe the diplomatic process as currently wired had any chance of bearing fruit, yet on the other hand he said he would not hinder chances at trying. He would neither participate nor torpedo, but rather look on – somewhat bemused – from the side as the parties, in his estimation, continued to bang their heads against a wall.
Chances are he will adopt a similar modus operandi this time as well when he returns to the Foreign Ministry on Monday, only with Justice Minister Tzipi Livni in the role of Barak.
It is very convenient for both Liberman and Netanyahu for Livni to be running the negotiations with the Palestinians. Both Netanyahu and Liberman realize that the negotiations are important for Israel’s standing in the world, and that it is not good for Israel to be cast in the role as the party responsible for a lack of negotiations. Nether man feels there is a real great chance of success because of their sense that Abbas cannot make the compromises necessary for an agreement, but with Livni leading the charge they can show they are trying.
This arrangement, by the way, is convenient not only for Netanyahu and Liberman, but also for Livni who is punching way above her weight as a leader of a party with only six Knesset members.
Those who think that the diplomatic process was dealt a heavy blow Wednesday with Liberman’s acquittal should note something else: it is not as if he has been uninvolved over the last few months. Even though Liberman stepped down as foreign minister, he still was number two in Likud- Yisrael Beytenu and still consulted regularly with Netanyahu, making it difficult to imagine that Netanyahu would have been able to enter the diplomatic process without a Liberman nod.
The main difference now is that Liberman will regain his seat in the security cabinet, where decisions on the Palestinian issue – if they ever reach that point – will need to be made. And with the addition of Liberman, the seven-person security cabinet just added the voice of an eighth man skeptical in the extreme of being able to reach a comprehensive agreement with the current Palestinian leadership.