Israel's Lieberman problem

Benjamin Netanyahu might be Israel's smooth-talking prime minister, but it is the ultra-nationalist foreign minister Avigdor Leiberman that much of the world now regards as the true voice of Israel. As it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain even the appearance of an active peace process, the new Israeli government and the Obama administration seem to be headed for confrontation.

"On the first day of the new Israeli government," Uri Avnery wrote, "the fog cleared: it's a Lieberman government." Benjamin Netanyahu might be Israel's smooth-talking prime minister, but it is foreign minister Avigdor Leiberman that much of the world now regards as the voice of Israel. And among the first things he had to say once in office was: "if you want peace, prepare for war." But as for where Mr Lieberman sees the greatest threat to Israel it comes not from without but from among its own citizens. In The National, Omar Karmi wrote: "It is tempting to characterise him as a radical populist, but his rhetoric clearly mirrors what many Israelis feel, namely that the Palestinian minority in Israel should be treated as a fifth column and that Israel should prioritise its Jewishness over democratic values. "To Palestinian citizens of Israel, the minority has always been viewed and treated that way and Mr Lieberman is only reaping the benefit of spelling out what are already both official and common attitudes. From 1948 to 1966, Palestinians in Israel lived under military rule that allowed them little freedom of movement and no recourse to civil law. Large swathes of land were confiscated to make room for new Jewish immigrants. The situation has improved since then, but Palestinians still complain of discrimination in budget allocations and in the health and education sectors, and the minority is the poorest and least educated sector in Israeli society. " 'Lieberman only gives voice to what is already a very racist mentality [in Israel] against Palestinian citizens,' said Johnny Mansur, a Haifa historian. 'This mentality exists because Israel has never resolved the question of whether it is possible to define itself as a Jewish state and at the same time offer full rights to non-Jewish citizens.' While Israel's prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly warned of a threat emanating from Iran and its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who Mr Netanyahu likens to Hitler, the Israeli commentator, Larry Derfner, writing in The Jerusalem Post, sees a greater threat much closer to home. "Lieberman talks a lot about 'the threat from within' being more dangerous than the threat from without - that the Arabs inside our borders can destroy this country easier than the Arabs outside. He's right about the threat from within, but it isn't from Israeli Arabs, it's from Lieberman himself and what he represents and the power he's gained. He's now taken over the foreign ministry. He's gotten the stamp of approval from the leading parties of the right, centre and centre-left - the Israeli consensus. He's being laundered and sanitised by virtually the entire American Jewish establishment. "And he's not through by a long shot. At this point, he seems to have an even brighter future ahead. "Lieberman is more dangerous than Ahmadinejad because we have the military power to deter Iran's threat to destroy us physically. I don't know if we have the power to deter Lieberman from destroying us morally - from turning us into the image of what we claim to hate." Meanwhile, Haaretz reported: "In an unprecedented move, the Obama administration is readying for a possible confrontation with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by briefing Democratic congressmen on the peace process and the positions of the new government in Israel regarding a two-state solution. "The Obama administration is expecting a clash with Netanyahu over his refusal to support the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. "In recent weeks, American officials have briefed senior Democratic congressmen and prepared the ground for the possibility of disagreements with Israel over the peace process, according to information recently received. The administration's efforts are focused on President Barack Obama's Democratic Party, which now holds a majority in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. "The preemptive briefing is meant to foil the possibility that Netanyahu may try to bypass the administration by rallying support in Congress." The Los Angeles Times said: "Vice President Joe Biden issued a high-level admonishment to Israel's new government Tuesday that it would be 'ill advised' to launch a military strike against Iran. "Biden said in a CNN interview that he does not believe newly installed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would take such a step. Even so, his comment underscored a gap between the conservative new Israeli government and the Obama White House on a series of questions, including the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and Iran. "While the Obama administration has made a series of recent overtures to Tehran, the Israelis have grown more confrontational out of concern that the Islamic Republic's increasing nuclear know-how could one day become an existential threat." Haaretz reported: "Western-backed peace efforts with the Palestinians have reached a 'dead end,' [Mr Lieberman] said, making new ideas for diplomacy a necessity for Israel. " 'There is definitely a regression here, and we must understand and admit that we are at a dead end,' Lieberman said at a pre-Passover toast for Yisrael Beiteinu officials in Jerusalem. 'We definitely intend to present new ideas.' "He said the new foreign policy he is formulating will not centre on negotiations with the Palestinians, because this has proven ineffective. 'It brought us more terrorism and Hamas took power.' " 'I have no intention of stalling or sitting around without doing anything,' added Lieberman. 'We will form a coherent policy, but we demand to be given time to compile a responsible and serious plan. We will initiate. We will not allow ourselves to be led by other forces.' " Zvi Bar'el wrote: "In the absence of a peace process - a situation that did not start with Lieberman's appointment - the Palestinian position is likely to improve, much to the dismay of Lieberman and Benjamin Netanyahu. When Israel becomes entrenched in the world's eyes as an obstacle to the peace process, thanks to Lieberman's shoot-from-the-hip statements, what will prevent Europe from easing the pressure on Hamas, funneling cash to Gaza without Israel's approval, requesting that Egypt open the Rafah crossing, freezing the upgrade in Israel's relations with the European Union (as the EU has hinted) and opening consulates in the West Bank? All this would be to signal that the Europeans recognise the principle of two states for two peoples. "What will happen if Washington does not automatically veto every resolution condemning Israel in the Security Council? Or worse, what if Washington decides to join the condemnation? After all, it will have a good excuse: Lieberman. Paradoxically, Lieberman is likely to become a part of Obama's new doctrine of global arrangements: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will not end, but Israeli obduracy will enhance, not diminish, the United States' standing in the Middle East. While Lieberman can continue to bang on his tom-toms every time somebody mentions the phrase 'diplomatic process,' he will not be able to direct forces much larger than him or Israel. He will be the perfect excuse for these forces to act. This is his strength, nothing more."

pwoodward@thenational.ae