Saturday, December 11, 2010

Israel: Lieberman Is The Problem

By Dov Zakheim 
This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 10/12/2010

Washington's withdrawal of Danegeld to Israel in exchange for a 90-day settlement freeze marks yet another downward turn in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. That process cannot be said to have been derailed, however; it has not really been on the rails since Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power with his former chief of staff, Avigdor Lieberman, as his deputy as well as foreign minister. While Prime Minister Netanyahu may well be sincere in finally coming to terms with the need for a two-state solution, as long as his policies are held hostage by his foreign minister, all the sincerity in the world will count for very little.

Avigdor Lieberman makes no bones about his position. Intensely nationalistic, he lives in a settlement town himself, and has no sympathy for any agreements that would in any way infringe on what he considers to be settlers' rights. As long as Netanyahu is unable to face down his foreign minister, the peace process will go nowhere.

Lieberman is doing Israel a tremendous deal of harm and not just regarding peace with the Palestinians. His blunt style, bordering on rudeness, has alienated many of his ministerial counterparts, with whom, after all, he is supposed to work for the betterment of his country's international interests. 

Most egregious has been his intransigence over Turkey's demand for an apology and compensation from Israel for the death of its eight citizens on the Mavi Marmora, the ship that sought to break the Israeli blockade in May 2010. In the wake of Turkish humanitarian assistance in helping to cope with the fires of northern Israel, the Jewish state has before it an opportunity to restore good relations with its most important, and longest standing, Muslim friend. Israel could apologize for those deaths, call them inadvertent, compensate the families; nevertheless it need not budge an inch from its contention regarding both the ship's purpose, as well as the legitimacy of its commando operation and its blockade of Gaza. In fact, the United States has pursued a similar course of action many times in somewhat analogous circumstances, including in Afghanistan, when civilians have been killed in air attacks on terrorist targets. But Lieberman is stonewalling, and an agreement that could have been reached months ago still may not be achieved, Israel's long term strategic interests notwithstanding.

While there is an outside chance that Lieberman might relent on Turkey, or perhaps that Netanyahu will find some way to end-run him, the prospects for evading or avoiding Lieberman in order to move ahead in the peace process with the Palestinians are much dimmer, and not only because of the man himself. The administration's strategy of alternating pressure with blandishments is simply wrongheaded. Those who argue that the United States can, or should, pressure Israel, neglect to recognize that most previous attempts to do so, at least since Eisenhower forced Israeli withdrawal from Sinai in 1956, have not met with much success. In particular, U.S. efforts to ratchet up pressure regarding the settlements have been miserable failures, and, in the cases of both Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, may well have cost them their re-election. It is not just the Jewish vote that hurt them both; American evangelical Christians are even more hard line on the settlements issue than are American Jews. Barack Obama risks becoming another one-term president like Carter and Bush if he follows their lead on trying to pressure Israel.

But blandishments do not work either. Even when Israel accepts U.S. offers of assistance in exchange for progress, little seems to happen. The "atmosphere" improves; photo ops are more genial. But there little evidence to prove that more U.S. generosity correlates with Israeli flexibility on the ground.

How then can the process be moved forward? First of all, the administration is correct in recognizing that, whatever the difficulties, the United States must continue to work the issue, not walk away from it. Second, the administration should encourage Tzipi Livni to bring her Kadima Party into the governing coalition. Livni has her own political calculus -- including her hope that by remaining out of the government her chances of winning the next election improve dramatically. But such considerations pale in comparison with the importance of having a "national unity" government that would not have to rely on Lieberman or his Yisrael Beiteinu party.

In addition, only a Likud-Kadima-Labor coalition has any hope of amending Israel's maddening voting system, which involves pure proportional representation, treats the entire country as a single district and allows parties capturing as little as one per cent of the vote to win seats in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset. Were the election law to move closer to that of Germany, which includes representatives of single districts as well as requiring a minimum of 5 per cent of the vote, most of the more extreme small parties would disappear from the Knesset. Even if a change in the electoral law is the stuff of fantasy, having Livni in the coalition, and allowing Netanyahu to dismiss Lieberman and appoint her in his place, is not fanciful at all. And it is critical if a two-state solution, which is in the vital interest of Israel as much as it is of Palestinians, is to remain something more than an unattainable dream.

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