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Posted on Sustainabilitank.info on July 20th, 2010
by Pincas Jawetz (pj@sustainabilitank.info)

We did not post anything for a while on the Palestinian/Israeli front and now we find that the public opinion in Israel seems to move to a consensus strangely initiated by the person the Israelis mostly love to hate. Oh well, this is also progress.

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On Avigdor Lieberman – the man in Israel’s Foreign Ministry – Neither Yvet nor Rasputin.

Since his rise to power, Lieberman has crafted a double image, on the one hand he is a force strengthening the Likud, on the other he is virtually the only statesman with a sober, long-range view.

By Yoel Marcus of HAARETZ, Israel

July 20, 2010

 www.haaretz.com/print-edition/opi…

Shortly after Benjamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister in 1996 we had a conversation in his office. Before we parted he asked, “Have you met Yvet?” He meant, of course, Avigdor Lieberman, then the director general of the Prime Minister’s Office with the fearsome mien and Netanyahu’s right-hand man in his ascent to power. When I replied that I had not yet had the privilege, Netanyahu made a call on the inter-office phone and in a few minutes I found myself in Lieberman’s office. He rose from his seat like a gentleman and shook my hand warmly but we barely spoke except to promise to “keep in touch.” In effect, we have not met to this day. Yvet neither forgot nor forgave my criticism of Bibi’s lame performance.

With Bibi’s fall, the director general was also gone. But Lieberman, with his trim beard and deep bass, latched onto the left-hating, extreme right-wing Russian-immigrant voters, spinning them an ideology. Ehud Barak’s colossal failure as prime minister, Ariel Sharon’s evacuation of Gush Katif, Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni’s talks with the Palestinians and the rise of radical right-wing Russian power are what enabled Bibi to regain the premiership and to leave Livni outside despite the fact that she headed the bigger party.

The appointment of an extreme rightist, a declared Arab-hater, as foreign minister in the make-believe peace government, was a high price for Bibi to pay, though it was less foolish than David Levy’s term as foreign minister under Yitzhak Shamir. While Levy took himself seriously to the point of comedy, going in and out of Washington and creating embarrassing situations, as foreign minister in Bibi’s government Lieberman has focused on countries in Eastern Europe and South America and other places where no Israeli foreign minister had gone before.

In the public eye, he has crafted a double image, neither Bibi’s buddy Yvet nor a Rasputin who controls the prime minister. On the one hand he is a force strengthening the Likud, and on the other hand he is virtually the only statesman with a sober, long-range view. He approaches the Palestinian problem not with aspiration for a Greater Israel but with a desire to resolve the Israeli-Arab conflict in a way that leaves as few Arabs as possible under Israeli control.

In the meetings of the forum of seven senior cabinet ministers, Lieberman sounds much more realistic and forward-looking than the other members. He can be charming on the personal level, but without double-talk.

If he doesn’t like something, he doesn’t like it. From the start of his career as foreign minister he knew he would not reach the Elysee Palace or be photographed in White House drawing rooms. But he has become one of the three most influential figures in the government, when it comes to preserving its right-wing character.

Over time, as pressure from Washington grew and the idea of bringing Kadima into the coalition was broached in the media, Yvet’s relationship with Bibi cooled to the point that Lieberman was heard saying that Netanyahu is not a leader. The magic of Netanyahu’s first term in office was gone for him. He was willing to take Bibi’s agreements with President Barack Obama into consideration and not throw a wrench into the works, but he felt it was wrong for Bibi to make Barak a quasi-foreign minister, and for Netanyahu to not consult with Lieberman over the aid flotilla to Gaza, for example. He swallowed his share of insults even as half a foreign minister. Yvet did not know, for example, that Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer had been dispatched to a secret meeting with the Turkish foreign minister. Certain figures say they heard Yvet, in a closed meeting, say: “We’ll teach Bibi a lesson he’ll never forget.” I do not know whether Lieberman’s declaration, just hours before Bibi left to meet Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, that Israel must unilaterally disengage from Gaza, was part of this curriculum.

Lieberman is not alone in thinking that nothing will come of the negotiations with the Palestinians, even in direct talks. Both Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Prof. Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former foreign minister, said in a Channel 2 television interview that no government will be able to reach an agreement with the Palestinians. It is no coincidence that Barak chose this moment for a conversation with Livni, but it’s not serious.

Netanyahu does not intend to add Kadima, with its 28 parliamentary votes, to the coalition and to lose Yisrael Beiteinu’s 15 sure votes. When you’re at the edge of the abyss, you don’t take a step forward.

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Lieberman introduced the idea: “Disengage from Gaza once and for all,” even Israel is not there anymore.

Israel’s left should support the idea of the European Union’s taking effective responsibility for the development of the Gaza Strip, even if Lieberman is the one who proposed it. Anyone who wants to view this idea as European neocolonialism is free to do so.

Even those who are not fans of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman must admit that his plan to invite European foreign ministers to visit the Gaza Strip is a creative and positive step. The initiative could also symbolize Israel’s final disengagement from Gaza, the consummation of a process that was never completed, primarily due to opposition raised by a defense establishment that has tended to look at the Gaza issue solely from a narrow security perspective, while ignoring the tremendous damage that the blockade has caused to Israel.

If Israel claims that there is no humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip, there is no reason to prevent visits to the area, as it has tried to do in the past. As it turns out, after dozens of years of controlling Gaza, in an occupation that failed to prevent the rise of Hamas and the stockpiling and smuggling of arms, it seems that Israel is having difficulty freeing itself from a sense of domination and authority. Though we might quibble over Lieberman’s motives, it is now his turn to lead a complex series of steps that might bring to an end a policy that Ariel Sharon initiated, with wide public support: freeing Israel from control and responsibility in Gaza.

After evacuating Israeli settlers from Gaza, we found ourselves locked in an absurd predicament. Israel no longer occupies Gaza, but since it demanded that control over crossing points and the coast remain in its hands, it has created a situation that has no parallel in the world: Israel has no control, but is regarded as being responsible for Gaza. Similarly, the ludicrous idea of enforcing a blockade on 1.5 million people in order to “pressure” Hamas into releasing Gilad Shalit is a proven, unmitigated failure that is tainted by a fundamental moral flaw. And the notion that any sort of Israeli policy will determine who rules the Palestinians, and will weaken or strengthen Hamas or Mahmoud Abbas, is nothing more than sheer hubris.

Should the foreign minister’s plan win the support of the prime minister and the defense establishment and be implemented, Israel would allow the European Union to take responsibility for infrastructure development in Gaza and supervision of the cargo entering the region, in coordination with Israeli security officials. The implications of such a development would be complex; even were the EU not to maintain direct contacts with Hamas, clearly these steps could not be taken without some sort of coordination with Ismail Haniyeh’s government. The Palestinian Authority, and perhaps the Obama administration, would not be thrilled by such a development, but it undoubtedly would suit Israeli interests.

True, one of the foreign minister’s motives might be to reduce the chances of an agreement being forged between Fatah and Hamas, by enhancing the Gaza Strip’s status as a separate entity. But so far, even in the absence of Lieberman’s initiative, all attempts to obtain such an agreement have failed. Residents of Gaza and Israel are the parties who have paid the price for these failures. The State of Israel must get used to the idea that its border with Gaza should be viewed like its border with Syria.

Put simply, Gaza is a foreign country, and the fact that its government is highly unpalatable to Israel is irrelevant. After all, the government in Damascus is not exactly run by lovers of Zion.

Israel’s left should support the idea of the European Union’s taking effective responsibility for the development of the Gaza Strip, even if Lieberman is the one who proposed it. Anyone who wants to view this idea as European neocolonialism is free to do so. The important point is that after reaching a strategic decision to disengage from Gaza, and after coming to the brink of a civil revolt as a result of this decision, Israel should finish the job. And if the European Union is so concerned about humanitarian aspects of life in Gaza, it should take the reins of responsibility with its own hands.

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