Lieberman and the Naked Emperor

By January 13, 2011

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 125

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman takes a blunt approach to politics, one that is often met with resistance at home and abroad. But despite his not-very-diplomatic style, Lieberman’s views on issues like the “peace process” and the Israel-Turkey relationship are representative of a large majority of the Israeli public, and his assessments are often right on the mark.

We are inundated with critical reports of the strident statements made by Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. He is, reportedly, damaging Israel’s international image. Obviously, political correctness is not one of his main concerns. It has to be acknowledged, however, that Lieberman’s not-very-diplomatic style, while uncomfortable, also involves more than a little truth-telling.

To a certain extent, Lieberman is playing domestic politics, trying to position himself as leader of the Right. Issues he has raised, such as the oath of allegiance, the conversion bill, and foreign funding of human rights NGOs indeed smack of populism and are simplistic remedies to complex problems. And his bluntness has repeatedly forced Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, a very eloquent representative of the Jewish state, to issue clarifications in order to distance himself from the enfant terrible of Israeli politics. Netanyahu prefers the image of a statesman and a responsible politician.

Yet, Lieberman is often telling the naked truth. Let’s consider his “provocative” and “irresponsible” statements on the Palestinians and the Turks.

The chances of reaching a comprehensive agreement in the near future with the Palestinians, within 12 or 36 months, are indeed nil, as Lieberman has pointed out. The Palestinian Authority is not willing to make any concessions in peace negotiations on Jerusalem or on refugees. It rejects recognition of Israel as a Jewish nation-state. Lieberman is correct also in pointing out that the PA lacks any legitimacy to close a deal with Israel. Abu Mazen’s corrupt regime relies on Israeli bayonets to defend it from Hamas. This is what Lieberman has said, and he is correct in his assessment.

Moreover, his views reflect the sober assessment of a large majority of Israelis. Even large swaths of the Israeli Left agree that there is no Palestinian partner for a full peace.

So why is it so terrible to tell the truth?

Similarly, Lieberman’s evaluation of the behavior of the current Turkish government is right on the mark. Turkey, under Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, has not missed an opportunity to pick a fight with Israel over the past two years, and there is nothing Jerusalem can do but wait for better times. Erdogan-led Turkey is not interested in good relations with Israel, primarily because under his helm Turkey is distancing itself from the West and displaying a greater Islamic coloration in its foreign policy. Anti-Semitic sentiments also fuel the hostility toward Israel. Israelis agree with Lieberman’s refusal to be a “punching bag for Turkey.” Thus, it makes no sense to apologize and pay compensation to those who sent IHH terrorists to help Hamas-ruled Gaza.

Actually, Lieberman’s assertion that it is Turkey which owes Israel an apology seems more logical. This probably makes sense to most Israelis, who witnessed the brutal treatment of Israeli naval commandos on the Turkish ship at the hands of so-called “peace activists.”

Similarly, Lieberman’s promotion of a loyalty oath is well in synch with majority Israeli opinion. Israeli Arab leaders have become increasingly vocal and violent in their support for Palestinian irredentism – and Israeli Jews want to see them checked. Most Israelis instinctively feel, as well, that the Ultra-Orthodox-controlled Rabbinate is much too narrow and unwelcoming in its approach to Russian-Israelis who want to convert to Judaism.

Another bingo for Lieberman.

Lieberman’s attack on left-wing NGOs being fifth columns is also striking a responsive chord among many Israelis that are fed up with Israel’s use of force being portrayed systematically as a human rights violation. After all, the IDF is making consistently great efforts to behave admirably moral.

The truth is often unpleasant. As a result, the seemingly noble and relentless search for an unavailable peace formula is preferred by many to acceptance of the bad news that there is no chance to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict soon. Incredibly generous Israeli concessions by Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert did not bring about peace because of the Palestinians’ insatiable appetite.

Nevertheless, entrenched formulas and paradigms are difficult to discard. The inertia of the “peace process” and the sunken costs are not conducive to taking a fresh look at a 17-year-long failure to bridge the differences between Israelis and Palestinians.

Similarly, the realization that diplomatic maneuvers or clever formulas cannot fix relations with a Turkey that has chosen to side with radical Islam goes against unfounded optimism. The possibility that ignoring reality is more dangerous than pursuing unrealistic policies does not always register.

Lieberman is not off the mark in pointing out that the flow of foreign money to Israeli NGOs is a serious issue that needs to be squarely dealt with. This is necessary particularly because some of these NGOs are blatantly biased with a clear Israel-demonization agenda hidden behind a human rights discourse.

This Israeli government understands the depressing reality, though a cool assessment will probably dictate going along with falsehoods to please the world. After all, telling the truth might push Israel into greater isolation. Lying is what the world expects of Jerusalem, and in the short run at least, such lying probably best serves Israel’s interests. In the longer run, however, political correctness may prove extremely costly.

Lieberman is having none of this. He is enjoying the role of the boy who exposed the sham behind the Emperor’s new clothes. But in contrast to the naïve boy in that well-known fable, Lieberman is a shrewd politician. The emphasis on naked truth suits his search for votes. After all, truth has certain appeal among Israeli voters.

This is Israel’s dilemma. Who represents the better and wiser diplomatic course: Netanyahu or Lieberman?

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family

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(Photo Credit: Saeima)

Prof. Efraim Inbar
Prof. Efraim Inbar

Prof. Efraim Inbar is professor emeritus of political studies at Bar-Ilan University and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.