Avigdor Lieberman is often seen as the very picture of a right-winger who “gets things done”. But do his actions match his words?
Avigdor Lieberman calls transfer a “peace plan” but is still considered the “responsible adult” • Everyone “knows” that “Lieberman’s word is his bond”, but reality tells a different story • A look at the man behind the nationalist mask
On February 7, 2014, the Tel Aviv branch of the Hilton Hotel chain hosted a conference of the commercial and industrial club. This was during a time of serious tension between two Israeli Ministers – Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon and Economics Minister Naftali Bennet – and the American Secretary of State John Kerry. In January, Yaalon was quoted as saying Kerry is “messianic and dangerous” in reference to Kerry’s ostensible obsession with solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the beginning of February, Bennet responded to Kerry’s warning that without an agreement with the Palestinians, Israel will suffer from an economic embargo, by attacking the Secretary of State: “there has not yet arisen a nation which will give up its land for economic interests.”
As a reminder, the Kerry proposal included a withdrawal to the ’67 lines, subject to border adjustments and land swaps, as well as the division of Jerusalem. Lieberman, until then a passive observer of these verbal barbs, took advantage of his presence at the Hilton conference to take swipes at his ministerial colleagues. “Kerry is not a Gush Emunim activist,” the Foreign Minister said, going on to flatter his American colleague: “In contrast to the grandstanding of cousin Bennet – Kerry is a true friend of Israel.”
A mere few hours after that speech, State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki was quick to greatly praise Lieberman. “This is a powerful statement,” Psaki said of Lieberman’s speech, “given his history and his background on these issues, and where his view was. We’ll see moving forward.” Psaki caused Lieberman to blush, but what neither she nor Lieberman mentioned was that the heads of the American Administration knew what Lieberman was going to say at the Hilton ahead of time. This isn’t because the NSA managed to hack the computer of Lieberman’s personal speech writer: as both Israeli and American diplomats have confirmed, Lieberman himself passed on the speech to the Americans so that they in turn could quickly praise Lieberman for his sober approach.
Meanwhile, the Israeli Foreign Ministry is not taking bets on whether Lieberman’s picture will suddenly adorn the wall of Kerry’s office. “There was a clear convergence of interests here,” a Ministry official explained. “Lieberman has never garnered much love in Washington, but the Americans were happy that a senior Israeli minister praised Kerry for a change. On the other hand, Lieberman understood that Bennet is taking over the right-wing electorate and he therefore had to distinguish himself and strengthen his image as the responsible adult.” This ostensible honeymoon ended when Lieberman called for reconquering the Gaza strip during Operation protective Edge. On the other hand, during the Operation, Lieberman also called for turning back the clock 66 years by applying a UN Mandate on the Strip.
Although Foreign Minister Lieberman lives in the settlement of Nokdim in Gush Etzion, he was never considered a classical member of the right, of the kind for whom the love of the Land of Israel is flowing through his veins. Despite the gaps between him and the settler camp, Lieberman has remained a politician loyal to the national camp, with the exception of a brief episode in Olmert’s government, when the Likud had hit a low point of 12 seats.
But it would seem that this time, Lieberman has fallen in love with his image as the “responsible adult” in the neighborhood. After refusing the Prime Minister’s proposal to cancel the elections by bringing the Haredim into the coalition, the Foreign Minister declared last Shabbat that he does not rule out joining a center-left government. Labor Party Chairman Herzog has already prepared the ground for softening Lieberman’s image among his voters when he announced “we can set up a government even with Lieberman,” while the Foreign Minister is also conducting active talks with Lapid and Cahlon. The polls predict between 8 and 11 seats for Yisrael Beiteinu in the coming elections, and if this range is accurate, there’s a good chance Lieberman will hold the balance in forming the next coalition.
It may be that Lieberman himself does not know where he’s heading, but 15 years after entering politics, perhaps it’s time to ask: who are you, Avigdor Lieberman?
A dysfunctional Foreign Minister
The story of Lieberman’s speech demonstrates, more than anything, Lieberman’s desire to remain relevant. Lieberman repeatedly points to dysfunctional government as one of the central problems of Israeli politics, but the truth is that he has shown himself to be a big part of the problem when he himself occupies government positions. Indeed Lieberman’s 58-month tenure as Foreign Minister, with a break of about a year due to the Belarussian ambassador affair, refutes his own argument. “The status of the Foreign Ministry was weakened in Lieberman’s time,” explained Makor Rishon commentator Ariel Cahana. “It’s true that the Foreign Ministry became less leftists in his time, but he was also denied many powers and as a result his influence on Israel’s foreign policy decreased.”
The “denial of powers” Cahana speaks of is a term Lieberman knows well, and it began before Lieberman became Foreign Minister. Bugie Yaalon, when appointed Strategic Affairs Minister in March 2009, did not understand in the beginning why a Ministry in charge of Israel’s security strategy was not regularly receiving sensitive intelligence. Yaalon made a few phone calls, through which he learned that he had inherited a Ministry that had been almost completely gutted under the previous Strategic Affairs Minister, Avigdor Lieberman.
Yisrael Beiteinu had achieved a peak achievement of 15 seats in the 2009 elections. While it was clear Lieberman would get a senior Ministry, not many believed that the man who is not usually associated with “diplomacy” would get the Foreign Ministry. One of Lieberman’s first statements in his new position was no less surprising: “I will not conduct negotiations with the Palestinians.”
Ostensibly, one might think that from his new position, Lieberman was boycotting Abu Mazen because of the incessant official PA incitement against Israel. But Lieberman’s explanation was quite original and surprising: “There is a conflict of interest between my living in an isolated settlement (Nokdim) to my task in negotiating with the United States over a settlement freeze.” An official who worked in the past with Lieberman said that his statement left the Minister workers speechless. “It’s as if the Transportation Minister said he would avoid dealing with taxing cars because he himself owns one,” the official said.
Lieberman’s residence in Nokdim apparently also led to a conflict of interest with his traveling on state business to Washington. Lieberman met only twice, with a two and a half year gap, with his opposite number Hillary Clinton, during the first term of Obama and Netanyahu. Contacts between the Foreign Ministry and the State Department were primarily handled by then-Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, who later fell out with Lieberman, and Clinton’s advisor and later Deputy Secretary of State under Kerry, Bill Burns. During Netanyahu’s second term, it was Justice Minister Tzipi Livni who handled negotiations with the Palestinians, allowing Lieberman to avoid conflicts of interest.
“Conflict of interest” then extended to the Iranian issue. Netanyahu’s first term was characterized by an aggressive public campaign in the western world regarding the danger of Ahmedinejad’s nuclear program. It’s hard to exaggerate the importance of this diplomatic effort, but the Prime Minister chose to handle the campaign himself, leaving the Foreign Ministry with only a bit part to play. After 2013, the Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz was put in charge of the nuclear issue.
Hasbara, which was once the sole purview of the Foreign Ministry, was transferred in Lieberman’s time into a national hasbara office under the Prime Minister’s office – a fact which was exceptionally prominent during Protective Edge. The Hasbara headquarters was particularly active on the digital front, primarily social networks. In the traditional media, foreign newscasters, tired of interviewing Naftali Bennet, almost didn’t get to talk to Israel’s Foreign Minister.
The Israeli National Security Council, which includes a headquarters for foreign relations, was strengthened considerably under Netanyahu at the expense of Lieberman and the Foreign Ministry. On the other hand, an official close to the Foreign Minister who was near him during the Operation in Gaza, said that “Lieberman function excellently during Protective Edge. He conducted effective talks with Foreign Ministers around the world and explained Israel’s position and actions.”
The Foreign Minister was proud of the understanding shown by Lithuania, Nigeria and Rwanda – all Security Council members – to Israel’s security needs. However, in South America, where Lieberman also tried to establish himself, was dealt a crushing diplomatic blow when Brazil, Peru and Chile all recalled their ambassadors this summer. “The idea to appeal to non-Western countries was interesting and could have been beneficial,” argues Ariel Cahana, “but it can’t just end in one visit. If you want a distant country to develop ties and mutual ties with a complex country like Israel, you need to be consistent in strengthening ties with it.”
In Europe, countries effectively boycott Israeli goods from beyond the Green Line, Sweden has recently recognized Palestine as a state and Lieberman himself recently said that the symbolic recognition of Palestine in the parliaments of Britian, France and Spain is “troubling”. If we’re already on the subject of Europe, before the decision to commence Protective Edge, Lieberman missed two cabinet meetings – the first, because he was abroad for work purposes and the second because he was conducting a critical meeting with the Chairman of the Albanian parliament. Lieberman apparently wasn’t brought up to speed from these two missed meetings, and on July 7 wondered why Israel isn’t responding to Hamas rocket fire. Less than 24 hours later, Israel commenced Protective Edge.
Left, Right, Left
Lieberman’s impressive physical presence, his deep and authoritative voice and his short, catchy slogans have granted Lieberman two invaluable traits for a politician: power and reliability. Election slogans like “only Lieberman understands Arabic” or “Lieberman’s word is his bond” have been absorbed by the Israeli voter, catapulting his party to 15 seats in the 2009 elections. But in reality, Lieberman is a great deal more unpredictable than his public persona suggests.
Lieberman, who called left-wing NGOs “foreign agents”, also avoided butting heads with the international law department of the Foreign Ministry, which in June 2011 published its opposition to a law limiting the donations that NGOs can receive from foreign countries. The left may enjoy Lieberman’s present statements in favor of the Saudi initiative, but this is also the same Foreign Minister who in April 2009 called the initiative a “recipe for the destruction of Israel.”
The same is true on the Palestinian issue. The old Lieberman said that an interim agreement is the only option with vis-à-vis the Palestinians, while the new Lieberman says that everything has to be dealt with in one package – Israeli Arabs, Palestinians and Arab states. At the end of Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, Lieberman complimented the government for not sending in ground troops, arguing “restraint also radiates power.” But two years later during Protective Edge, Foreign Minister Lieberman didn’t hesitate to attack Netanyahu for not going “all the way” into Gaza. People in Lieberman’s circle claim that after Pillar of Defense, the government agreed that next time they would conquer the strip, and Netanyahu’s failure to abide by these understandings incensed the Foreign Minister.
In other cases, Lieberman doesn’t change his tune – he just doesn’t translate words into deeds. For instance, Lieberman said he would work to draft Israeli Arabs into the IDF, but in the end he voted for an equal (service) burden law which did not include the Arabs. The Foreign Minister also declared everywhere he could that he opposed the Shalit Deal, but his senior Minister, Yitzhak Aharonovitch supported it, as did his Absorption Minister Sofa Landver.
Aharonovitch himself has managed to serve as Minister of Public Security at a time when the Old City has almost entirely emptied of Jews, the Jerusalem light rail is regularly pelted with rocks and a Jewish family which accidentally enters Wadi Joz miraculously escaped a lynching. It’s not hard to imagine how sharply Lieberman would criticize a left-wing Minister who did such a poor job of protecting Israeli citizens, rather than one of his own.
If we’re already on the subject of Jerusalem, it’s hard not to remember how Lieberman joined forces with the same Shas he was not willing to join with in a coalition, just in order to run his favorite, an Givatayim accountant named Moshe Leon against Nir Barkat in the mayoral elections. A number of publications noted that Lieberman’s decision to run Leon came after Barkat’s refusal to appoint Lieberman’s crony, Vladimir Shklar, as CEO of the Company for the Development of East Jerusalem. Lieberman, of course, flatly denies this.
To his credit, Lieberman has been consistent in preferring the “whole people over the whole land.” But recently he has sharpened his tone, even arguing that road no. 6 needs to be the new border of Israel. He has also repeated his offer to hand over the triangle area to a future Palestinian state in return for concessions to Israel in Judea and Samaria, but a senior diplomat we talked to explained that “if Lieberman was really serious on the issue, he wouldn’t talk about it so much, but act behind the scenes so that it is proposed by a third party. Without the agreement of the Arabs, the idea has no chance of succeeding, and they certainly will not agree to be transferred to the Authority if Israel, to say nothing of Lieberman, make the proposal…It’s basically just a marketing gimmick which works very well for Lieberman.”
The next Prime Minister?
In the meantime, Lieberman’s position in the polls is stable. Prof. Camille Fuchs, whose poll was aired on Channel 10 and which gives Lieberman’s party 11 seats, argues that “Lieberman flowers in election times,” explaining that “the public doesn’t really remember how dominant Lieberman was as a Foreign Minister, or that he attacked the Prime Minister during Protective Edge. He likes short, catchy slogans, say against Abu Mazen, and he has those in abundance. The fact that Lieberman didn’t grant interviews during Protective Edge can even be in his favor, as someone who ostensibly got things done rather than just talking.” Fuchs also explains why in his opinion Lieberman tends to direct his statements towards the left-wing side of the map. “Religious people won’t vote for him because of his positions on religion and state,” he says, “and Bennet is taking away quite a few secular right wingers for whom the entire Land of Israel is important. Lieberman needs to sweep voters from the center and take a bite out of Lapid.”
Fuchs also estimates that about half of Lieberman’s seats come from Russian votes. Gadi Wolfsohn, political commentator for the Russian news site NewsRu, explains that Lieberman’s main base consists of “the older votes, those who still get excited to see ‘one of us’ reach such a senior position. The younger generation, and to some extent the second generation, vote like veteran Israelis. Even though among them there is also a small, but solid core which supports Lieberman.” A recent poll showed that only six percent of the Russian public sees the promotion of civil marriage, another promise Lieberman didn’t deliver on, as a central consideration for choosing a party. In addition, Lieberman may enjoy a boost from the immigration of Jews coming from Ukraine coming in the wake of Ukraine’s war with Russia, a bloc estimated at a half a seat.
Likud, which Lieberman unsuccessfully tried to take over, has identified the one factor which could make right-wing voters choose him over them – his strident rhetoric over Israeli Arabs and Abu Mazen. “People who want to go with Ivet over his Arab hatred,” said Tzipi Hotoveli, “might be tempted to give their vote to Yisrael Beiteinu.” Ariel Cahana of Makor Rishon believes that the fight between Likud and Lieberman, and the recent move of the latter towards the left, may turn out to be a smoke screen. “Right now the bloc of Labor, Cahlon and Lapid is estimated at about 40 seats,” Cahana says, “Even if Lieberman joins the left, it won’t be enough for a coalition, unless Yair Lapid suddenly decides to sit with the Haredim. If Netanyahu has to form a government, it’s more logical ideologically for him to go to the Haredim. Lieberman knows this and therefore I wouldn’t be so quick to eulogize a Netanyahu-Bennet-Lieberman government.”
The rotation agreement signed between Herzog and Livni strengthens Cahana’s assessment even further. Three weeks ago, Lieberman declared in an interview to Wolfsohn from NewsRu that after two terms as Foreign Minister, “I have nowhere to go but the Premiership.” Wolfsohn argues that Lieberman wants to be Prime Minister right now, otherwise “he would have agreed to add the Haredim to the coalition and prevent an election.” Lieberman understands that if the Livni-Herzog team wins the election, his dream of being Prime Minister will be gone for at least the next four years. So Herzog has not just shot himself in the foot regarding a partnership with Lieberman, but also other potential partners such as Cahlon and Lapid.
Lieberman, then, dreams of a Premiership by rotation, but it’s not clear with whom. The Likud and Jewish Home will almost certainly win more seats than Yisrael Beiteinu, and even Cahlon and Lapid may do better. If the task for forming a coalition is given to Herzog, Lieberman’s dream will be possible only if Livni gives up her place in the rotation agreement. If Livni stays put, don’t be surprised if shortly after the elections, Lieberman convenes a press conference announcing: “I quit.”
Minister Lieberman’s response:
“We respond to serious and objective media outlets and not websites and articles driven by outside interests, and that is our response to the questions.”
English translation by Avi Woolf.