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Israel’s Next Top Diplomat Has History of Ruffling Feathers

BY Admin  March 20, 2009 at 4:30 PM EDT

Avigdor Lieberman; AP photo

According to some analysts, prime minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu, the head of the rightwing Likud party, had little choice but to name Lieberman, leader of the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party, to the position of foreign minister. Lieberman’s party won the third highest number of parliamentary seats in February’s national elections, and Lieberman’s endorsement of Netanyahu helped cement his role as prime minister.

Tzipi Livni’s centrist Kadima party won one more seat than the Likud party, but not enough to form a coalition government. Israeli President Shimon Peres, therefore, tasked Netanyahu with cobbling together a government.

Livni so far has said Kadima will not join a coalition with Netanyahu, and as a result, Lieberman — as the head of the second largest bloc in the new coalition — was entitled to a significant post.

Netanyahu has indicated he is still trying to reach out to his more moderate rivals in order to expand his base, and on Friday was granted a two-week extension — until April 3 — to create his government.

Besides the foreign minister slot, Netanyahu must decide on other key cabinet posts, such as defense and finance ministers. He has said he would like to see Livni, as well as Ehud Barak’s center-left Labor party, join the coalition, but analysts say both seem unlikely.

Netanyahu’s deal with Lieberman, announced on Monday, is the first coalition pact he has signed. Some observers have warned that Lieberman’s appointment, which would effectively make him the face of Israel to the world, is likely to increase public hostility and calls for further isolation of the Jewish state.

Lieberman, a Russian emigrant who still speaks heavily accented Hebrew, has advocated harsh policies toward Palestinian citizens of Israel, including transferring Arab towns to a future Palestinian state and instituting loyalty tests that could strip Arabs of their citizenship — policies that many critics in and out of Israel have called racist.

Perhaps more problematic for his possible new role is Lieberman’s reputation for making undiplomatic statements. He once suggested that Israel should bomb Egypt’s Aswan Dam if the countries ever went to war again.

Last year, Israel was forced to apologize to Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak after Lieberman told the Knesset in a speech that Mubarak could “go to hell” for never making an official visit to Israel.

According to one Egyptian official, Cairo may decide to extend an invitation to Netanyahu soon after he takes office, and thereby avoid having to deal initially with Lieberman. The official, who did not want to be identified since his government has yet to take an official position on Lieberman, said an apology “would be nice and would make our job a lot easier.”

“We are going to have to make a differentiation between the Israeli government and the foreign minister. We have indicated we will deal with any Israeli government that takes office,” he added.

Another European diplomat, who also has dealings with Israel and did not want to be quoted by name, said one of the main concerns in Europe is whether a Netanyahu-Lieberman government would continue the peace process.

“The last Netanyahu-led government showed it was able to cut deals and negotiate,” the diplomat said. Netanyahu was prime minister from 1996 to 1999 and negotiated two land swap deals in the West Bank.

The peace process is a focal point for the United States as well. President Obama has said his administration would actively pursue a two state solution. Since the 1990s, Netanyahu has been critical of exchanging land in the West Bank for peace. He opposed the Israeli pullout from Gaza in 2005, and some analysts are predicting a clash with the Obama administration.

However, Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. State Department official who has advised six secretaries of state on the Middle East, cautioned that people who are anticipating a clash between Israel and its U.S. ally will likely be holding their breaths for a long time.

“The history of peacemaking in Israel is the history of the right-wing. Sharon disengaged from Gaza, Netanyahu in his first incarnation, signed two agreements to withdraw from land on the West Bank. This is not a business for doves. It’s a business for transformed hawks,” he said.

Miller added that even though the new coalition may be “one of the most rightwing governments in Israel’s history,” previous U.S. presidents have had to deal with rightwing Israeli governments and were able to initiate peace deals.

“Yitzhak Shamir [Israel's Prime Minister from 1986 to 1992] was far more blunt and ideological than Netanyahu ever was, and [President George H.W.] Bush was able to work with him, even though he was never comfortable with him,” Miller said.

The problem, however, according to Miller, is not that Israel has a right-wing government, but that it has a “weak right-wing government.” Netanyahu’s coalition may be too narrow and unsteady to instigate any major policy shifts.

And in that weak government, Lieberman may see an opportunity.

“The interesting twist in this is that Lieberman sees himself as one of the country’s future leaders,” said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator and now a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. “He wants to show he can handle Israel’s relations.”

According to Shai Feldman, director of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University, Lieberman’s sights are not limited to being foreign minister. “This is a man who wants to prove he can succeed and he knows he can’t succeed as foreign minister by antagonizing the world.”

Lieberman could move quickly to counter his image abroad by emphasizing the fact that he supports the two-state solution and Israel’s need to swap land for peace, said Feldman.

“In that regard, he’s to the left of Netanyahu,” he said.