Analysis: Will the real Lieberman please stand up?

By Anshel Pfeffer, March 19, 2009
Lieberman: pundits worldwide are asking whether he is a dangerous radical or democratic pragmatist

Lieberman: pundits worldwide are asking whether he is a dangerous radical or democratic pragmatist

Politicians, journalists and diplomats are assessing Israel’s next foreign minister, trying to reconcile the wildly contradictory statements he has made in the past.

However, those who know him best insist there is only one Avigdor Lieberman. In the words of a senior Israeli official, who has worked closely with him: “Unlike most politicians who are interested in having a good public image, Lieberman is only interested in using his image as a tool for achieving his objectives.”

For example, he says, “Lieberman allowed himself to be seen as anti-religious during the elections because he was after the hiloni (secular) constituency. The moment he had got their votes, he settled his differences with the religious parties in five minutes”.

So how will Lieberman’s combination of strident rhetoric and pragmatism serve him as Israel’s new top diplomat? “Eighty per cent of the Foreign Ministry’s work will continue on auto-pilot,” explains a former government advisor who is close to Lieberman. “Ambassadors will work on Israel’s foreign relations like they always do. Lieberman will identify the main strategic issues, and focus on them.”

He knows that his challenge is to maintain Israel’s alliances with the US and the main European countries, and he will make that his main business.”

But can he succeed after the media and diplomatic community have branded him as a dangerous and proto-fascist radical? “I find it hard to believe that the Obama administration, having signalled its willingness to talk with Iran and the Taliban, will now boycott Israel’s foreign minister,” says a veteran Israeli diplomat, “and once they sit down with Lieberman, they will be surprised.”

To forge new links with the American political establishment, Lieberman launched a charm offensive, downplaying his more inflammatory statements and stressing his belief in “responsible citizenship”. Eight months ago he recruited former Israeli ambassador to Washington, Danny Ayalon, to his party and gave him a spot on its parliamentary list.

Ayalon has been working hard to soften Lieberman’s image: “Once you explain to people and you dispel all the myths and dispel all the name-calling, there is some substance here that we have to grapple with. It’s not all black and white,” he told the Washington Times.

Lieberman will have little trouble in boosting Israel’s diplomatic presence in the Former Soviet Union nations, where he has enjoyed close relationships with senior politicians and businesspeople for many years.

“He made his money by organising deals between the former Soviet republics,” says one of his confidantes, “and he will try to do the same thing now as foreign minister. Lieberman’s great advantage is that he knows what people are looking for. He can play all the keys on a piano, not just two keys like most politicians.

“He realises that, right now, Obama and the other American and European leaders are much more interested in saving their economies than bringing peace to the Middle East. Instead of getting into arguments with his counterparts over settlements and concessions, he will try to focus on how he can use his Russian connections, which are important also to the West, to his benefit.

“I think he plans to surprise them with his pragmatism and usefulness in ways they never imagined.”

Israel’s Foreign Minister: Charm or offensive?

● “We must continue to fight Hamas like the United States did with Japan in the Second World War.”

● On Arab MKs: “The Second World War ended with the Nuremberg trials. The heads of the Nazi regime, along with their collaborators, were executed. I hope this will be the fate of the collaborators”.

● In March 2002, after several Palestinian attacks on Israelis: “I would not hesitate to send the Israeli army into all of Area A (the area of the West Bank under Palestinian Authority control) for 48 hours.

● “Destroy the foundations of all the authority’s military infrastructure and all of the police buildings, the arsenals, all the posts of the security forces… not leave one stone on another. Destroy everything.”

● On a plan to offer Palestinian prisoners amnesty: “It would be better to drown these prisoners in the Dead Sea if possible, since that’s the lowest point in the world.”

● “I want the State of Israel to remain a Zionist, Jewish and democratic state. There is nothing ‘far’ or ‘ultra’ about those ideals. I also advocate the creation of a viable Palestinian state.”

● “I stand at the head of the most diverse political party in the Knesset…I find it a bit rich to be called a bigot.”

    Last updated: 2:26pm, November 8 2010