Special Report

Avigdor Lieberman’s Dose of Truth

In the wake of Obama's appearance, the Israeli foreign minister's speech to the UN this week drew condemnations.

By 9.30.10

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Not surprisingly, Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman's speech to the UN General Assembly this week drew condemnations, with Palestinian delegates walking out on the speech.

Israel's left-wing daily Haaretz ran an article claiming U.S. Jews were "outraged." It quotes extreme-dovish activist Seymour Reich as saying, "If Lieberman can't keep his personal opinions to himself, he ought to resign from the cabinet," and an unnamed "leader" as saying, "Every time…Lieberman voices his skepticism about achieving peace, he undermines Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's credibility."

In Israel, among prominent commentators denouncing the speech was Ron Ben-Yishai in Yediot Aharonot, the country's largest daily. In a piece called "Time to Fire Lieberman,"  Ben-Yishai, who usually writes on military affairs and is often quite reality-cognizant, bitterly accused Lieberman of showing "chutzpah and contempt" toward Netanyahu, "undermin[ing] Israel's image as a democratic, enlightened state," and "grant[ing] a diplomatic victory" to Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas.

Ministers from the left-of-center Labor Party -- part of Netanyahu's coalition -- also skewered the speech.

Now, what did Lieberman actually say? A perusal of the short address reveals nothing morally or intellectually objectionable.

After the opening pleasantries, Lieberman asked: "why, during the seventeen years since we signed the Oslo Accords, have we not arrived at a comprehensive agreement signifying the end of the conflict [with the Palestinians]?"

He went on to contest "the prevalent view that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the heart of the instability in the Middle East," noting that:

More than ninety percent of the wars and war victims of the [region] since the Second World War did not result from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and are in no way connected to Israel, stemming rather, from conflicts involving Muslims or conflicts between Arab states. The Iran-Iraq war, the Gulf war, the wars between North and South Yemen, the Hamma atrocities in Syria, and the wars in Algeria and Lebanon, are just a few examples of a list that goes on and on.

Anything wrong there? Nope; I could have said it myself.

Lieberman then turned to the "second flawed explanation" for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, namely, "the so-called 'occupation,' the settlements in Judea and Samaria and the settlers themselves." He pointed out:  

Firstly, all of Judea, Samaria and Gaza were under Arab control for 19 years, between 1948 and 1967. During these 19 years, no one tried to create a Palestinian state.

Peace agreements were achieved with Egypt and Jordan despite the presence of settlements. And the opposite is also true: we evacuated twenty-one flourishing settlements in Gush Katif [in Gaza], and we transferred more than 10,000 Jews and in return, we have Hamas in power and thousands of missiles on Sderot and southern Israel.

Again, all quite accurate.

Lieberman went on:

The other misguided argument is the claim that the Palestinian issue prevents a determined international front against Iran…. In truth, the connection between Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is precisely reversed. Iran can exist without Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah, but the terrorist organizations cannot exist without Iran…. [I]n searching for a durable agreement with the Palestinians…one must understand that first, the Iranian issue must be resolved….

Adding that "this is not a sufficient condition [but] it is nevertheless a necessary one," Lieberman was again spot-on.  

He then came to some remarks that indeed diverge from Netanyahu's -- recently -- stated positions. Referring to the conflict's underlying "emotional problems" such as the "utter lack of confidence between the sides," Lieberman said:

[W]e should focus on coming up with a long-term intermediate agreement, something that could take a few decades. We need to raise an entire new generation that will have mutual trust and will not be influenced by incitement and extremist messages.

As is true everywhere, where there are two nations, two religions and two languages with competing claims to the same land, there is friction and conflict. Countless examples…confirm this, whether in the Balkans, the Caucasus, Africa, the Far East or the Middle East. Where effective separation has been achieved, conflict has either been avoided, or has been dramatically reduced or resolved. Consider the cases of the former Yugoslav republics, the split-up of Czechoslovakia and the independence of East Timor….

Thus, the guiding principle for a final status agreement must not be land-for-peace but rather, exchange of populated territory. Let me be very clear: I am not speaking about moving populations, but rather about moving borders to better reflect demographic realities.

…This is not an extraordinary insight [nor] a controversial political policy. It is an empirical truth.

Again, this is reasonable thinking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, both well grounded and out-of-the-box. It's inconsistent with what Netanyahu has lately been saying in two regards: the prime minister's declared optimism that an agreement with the Palestinians can be reached within a year; and his seeming acceptance of the dominant land-for-peace paradigm now considered (wrongly) to be based on the 1967 borders.

Nevertheless, Netanyahu's reaction to his subordinate's talk was mild. His office stated that Lieberman's address was not coordinated with him, and that "the prime minister is the one who is heading the negotiations on behalf of the State of Israel. Issues related to the peace process will be discussed and decided on at the negotiation table, not anywhere else."

It was a distancing but not a repudiation, and the question is why.

One thing to point out is that Lieberman is not from Netanyahu's Likud Party but, instead, the leader of his own Yisrael Beiteinu faction. As such, in Israel's parliamentary system, Lieberman's independence of Netanyahu could be seen as less jarring. This is, however, a nicety that may not be appreciated abroad.  

Also to be mentioned is Netanyahu's wish to avoid rocking the boat of his so-far stable coalition. So is the need to project that he's in charge, hence not react too sharply to Lieberman's seeming defiance.

But there may be another factor at play as well.

Few observers believe Netanyahu is actually a convert to Pollyannaish views of Israel's conflict with its environment. More likely, his approach to the Palestinian issue is aimed at managing the relentless pressure from a U.S. president for whom it's an obsession, and who in his own recent UN speech devoted ten paragraphs to it compared to two paragraphs for international terror and two for the Iranian threat.

It could well be that for Netanyahu, too, Lieberman's words were a breath of fresh air. Someone needs to tell the truth.

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About the Author

P. David Hornik is a writer and translator in Beersheva, Israel, blogging at PDavidHornik.typepad.com.