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Sunday, April 5, 2009

New Israeli Government Foreign Policy Team: It's Not All Lieberman

By Barry Rubin

In the Israeli political game, there are some things too important to play with. Has new Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu safeguarded Israel’s security and foreign relations while meeting party and coalition needs, and what is the likely result of this new government’s policies internationally?

Netanyahu had to put together a complex web of parties and personalities to get a Knesset majority. The result is a cabinet with more ministers than Jerusalem has rabbis.

Yet equally impressive is that of the 30 ministers, almost half of them will deal with some element of national security or foreign policy. Is this a formula for chaos? Possibly.

Avigdor Lieberman as foreign minister seems a recipe for disaster. The main problem is not so much Lieberman’s views but the world’s perception in which Lieberman has replaced Netanyahu as the Western media’s favorite “extremist hawkish racist warmonger ultranationalist.” Funny, none of those terms are ever applied to Arab or Iranian leaders.

To some extent, this new demonized personality takes pressure off Netanyahu who looks virtuous by comparison. Perhaps one day the world will even understand that he’s a centrist.

The second problem is Lieberman’s lack of experience—I refrain about making a comparison on this point with the current American president—and undiplomatic mien. The fact that his English is insufficient could be an advantage as Foreign Ministry translators may sometimes be able to recast his words into safer form. He loves being controversial, not a good characteristic for a foreign minister.

Those who know say he can be intelligent and engaging in private. Yet he’s unlikely to be given a chance to show these traits. Or to put it another way, it may be a race between Lieberman and other leaders as to who can insult each other first.

We should remember, however, that when opposition leader Tsipi Livni of Kadima says that Lieberman’s being foreign minister shows she was right not to join the government, that if she’d joined the government Lieberman wouldn’t be foreign minister.

How has Netanyahu tried to cushion this problem? First, to a large extent, he’ll be his own foreign minister. He’s quite good at being articulate and charming.

The other factor, however, is that Lieberman will be guided—if he’s wise enough to listen—by one of Israel’s most able diplomatists, former Ambassador to the United States Danny Ayalon, a member of Lieberman’s party, who will be deputy minister of foreign affairs. Ayalon’s interventions will be critical for Israel’s international policy and reputation.

And let’s not forget still another articulate and competent person who will be the closest thing to a hasbara minister: Yuli Edelstein (Likud). Formerly a courageous Soviet refusenik, he will be minister for Jewish Diaspora affairs and for national public relations plus chairman of the Israel Broadcasting Authority and the government’s international spokesman. Edelstein is poised to be a big success and represents about the highest government commitment in history to telling Israel’s story and making its case abroad.
Equally remarkable, is that aside from this international affairs quartet is the fact that there are no fewer than seven individuals, three of them former high-ranking army officers, who will deal directly with strategic matters.

At their head, of course, is Defense Minister Ehud Barak, leader of the Labor party, who is very professional. Whether or not he has made a great prime minister, he is someone who makes you feel more secure in that critical office.

As his deputy minister of defense, Barak has his fellow Labor party member and former deputy chief of staff, Matan Vilna'i, another very capable man. Then there is a third general, former chief of staff Moshe Ya’alon of Likud who has strategic affairs, whatever that means.

Speaking about cabinet posts of unclear definition, there’s Yitzhak Aharonovitch (Israel Beiteinu), a former Border Police commander and deputy commissioner of police at Internal Security and the hardline but nice guy Uzi Landau (Israel Beiteinu) at National Infrastructure. Finally, there is moderate but nice guy Dan Meridor as minister-without-portfolio for intelligence agencies.

There are two ways to look at all this. One is that there are too many people who will be scrabbling for turf. The other way is that Netanyahu will have a general staff with some very talented people to use as his advisors and to give them special tasks.

The truth is that while there’s unused additional talent in Labor, Kadima’s participation in the coalition—which I’d personally prefer—wouldn’t exactly bring in great talents. Livni would be preferable to Lieberman at the Foreign Ministry but is not exactly another Henry Kissinger. She’s never achieved a single success in any area of diplomacy. Shaul Mofaz is capable but no better than the three other former generals already in this cabinet. Nachman Shai would be a good spokesman. And that’s about it for Kadima.
As a whole, this is a pretty moderate foreign affairs and security cabinet with a lot of experience and professionalism. Except for the potential Lieberman time-bomb—and that’s a big potential problem for sure—it is a solid team.

And except for Uzi Landau, this group is hardly hardline, especially compared to past cabinets under Likud prime ministers. Does this security-foreign affairs cabinet support a two-state solution? Overwhelmingly, yes. It first wants to make sure—quite a reasonable demand—that the Palestinians accept such an outcome, which is far from clear.
Now if Lieberman can only resist the temptation to indulge his appetite for mischief, some good may come of this government.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books, go to

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