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Lieberman: Take 3

Ami, who after all is my boss, thinks the media (including JTA) missed the lede on Avigdor Lieberman’s maiden speech ("Avigdor Lieberman" and "maiden" in the same sentence – the mind boggles) as foreign minister: Lieberman accepts the "road map" (and by implication a two-state solution). His rejection of the more recent Annapolis conference was secondary, Ami says.

I did not write our initial brief emphasizing Annapolis, but Ami asked me to rewrite the brief with the roadmap in the lede, and I dutifully did so.

That done, Now let me explain why I think that was wrong. The lede might have been a little off, but yes, the real news was that by shunning Annapolis, Lieberman was effectively suspending talks with the Palestinian Authority.

Let me emulate my friend Shmuel Rosner, whose DC presence I miss, by enumerating my objections.

1) It’s not news that Lieberman accepts two states. His "Lieberman plan" is predicated upon two states. It is also predicated upon stripping a sizable percentage of Israeli Arabs of their citizenship. It is also probably illegal. This renders his commitment to "two states" virtually meaningless and unserious. Imagine a Mexican government "recognizing" the United States and claiming Texas. Better yet, imagine Arab states "recognizing" Israel but insisting on a full right of return for all Palestinian refugees. Israel laughs off that scenario as unserious. It runs both ways.

2) There is no Annapolis plan to reject. There is an Annapolis process. Israel’s commitment at Annapolis was to discuss final status or "core" issues: Jerusalem, borders, refugees. Condoleezza Rice, the former secretary of state, conceived the Annapolis process as a means of empowering Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, after Hamas forced out his Fatah party in the Gaza Strip. The strategy was to jump to the endgame, come up with a plan, and show the residents of Gaza that talk works better than guns – thus paving the way for Palestinian moderates to insinuate their way back into the strip.

The Olmert government never made it to the "plan" stage. By dropping Annapolis, Lieberman seems to be saying that any efforts to achieve such a plan are off for now – i.e., the talks are suspended.

The idea was to retool the road map to accomodate the post-Hamas reality. I don’t have any illusions about whether the process would have succeeded. It was near impossible to pull off without making Abbas look like a lackey. And even if Gazans suddenly coveted the freedoms their West Bank cousins were supposedly going to enjoy as a result of a deal, what, exactly, would have induced Hamas to play along? The process’ essential fault was that it was  supposed to use democracy to persuade fascists to go away. How does that work?

But that begs the question, what does Lieberman mean by rejecting this process? He never says. Does he think Abbas deserves to be undercut? Is he saying Abbas deserves better?

We will adhere to it to the letter, exactly as written. Clauses one, two, three, four – dismantling terrorist organizations, establishing an effective government, making a profound constitutional change in the Palestinian Authority. We will proceed exactly according to the clauses.

Much of this is indeed happening or on its way to happening where the Palestinian Authority asserts control in the West Bank. So what else is Lieberman seeking? Is Abbas supposed to somehow magically reassert control of Gaza? Or is Lieberman endorsing Palestinian national unity talks as a means of Abbas controlling Gaza (now that would be news.)  Annapolis was supposed to get Abbas back into the Gaza game. So far, it’s true, it failed. What is Lieberman proposing as an alternative?

It’s true that the "road map" left final status to the end, and made ending Palestinian violence and freezing settlements (more on settlements below) its initial priorities. But that process was made impossible when the terrorist forces Abbas was supposed to quell defeated and ousted him from Gaza.

3) Does Lieberman truly accept the road map? Notably, he talks about the version approved by the Cabinet in the context of a government honoring its earlier agreement – but he also says the U.N. Security Council resolution binds Israel:

The continuity of government is respected in Israel. I voted against the Road Map, but that was the only document approved by the Cabinet and by the Security Council – I believe it was Resolution 1505. It is a binding resolution and it binds this government as well.

This actually is interesting and deserves further inquiry, because these are two different documents. The road map approved by the Security Council includes an end to violence and a freeze on settlements in its first phase. The Israeli Cabinet approved the plan with "reservations" that sequenced a settlement freeze after an end to violence. (It talks about "progress between phases" as opposed to "progress within phases," which raises real questions about what they’re sifting into the vafelim and botz at the prime minister’s office.)

The United States has never accepted this "sequencing." So, when he refers to the Security Council decision as "binding" is Lieberman once and for all throwing out sequencing? That would be news. But then he refers to the Cabinet decision, and also to proposals by Bush administration envoys George Tenet and Anthony Zinni:

We are also obligated to implement what is required of us in each clause, but so is the other side. They must implement the document in full, including – as I said – the Zinni document and the Tenet document. I am not so sure that the Palestinian Authority or even we – in those circles that espouse peace so much – are aware of the existence of the Tenet and Zinni documents.

This is both bizarre and telling (not to mention just an eensy bit belligerent for a "maiden" speech). Bizarre because both documents are very much of their time (2001 and 2002), seeking to revive an arrangement of joint Israeli-Palestinian security control that has no meaning in the Gaza Strip now. With whom is he proposing Israel coordinate security in Gaza? Hamas? And Israel is already coordinating security with the P.A. in the West Bank – but under radically different circumstances, because it is an entirely different P.A. security apparatus, better trained and better screened for ties to terrorist groups. It’s a little like reopening NATO talks and demanding a return to Adenauer-era levels of German force engagement.

It is telling because it suggests that Lieberman’s "road map" emphasis is on security, not on freezing settlements, for all his rthetoric of committing Israel to its provisions. (Neither the Zinni nor the Tenet document mentions settlements, which is not surprising – each deals exclusively with reviving security cooperation.) Could Lieberman not care less about settlements because he’s nurturing his hopes for a population swap?

Finally, there are a couple of other newsy elements from the speech that have gotten swept aside because of the Annapolis flap:

1) This is his credo:

"Si vis pacem, para bellum" – if you want peace, prepare for war; be strong. 

And:

When was Israel at its strongest in terms of public opinion around the world? After the victory of the Six Day War, not after all the concessions in Oslo Accords I, II, III and IV. Anyone who wants to maintain his status in public opinion must understand that if he wants respect, he must first respect himself. I think that, at least from our standpoint, will be our policy.

What’s he talking about? Israel hemorrhaged carefully cultivated diplomatic ties across Africa and east Asia after the 1967 war, and restored them after Oslo. No person with a memory thinks of post-1967 as a hey day for Israel-love. I’m not saying it should have been, nor am I saying that stacking up embassies across Hayarkon street is an end in itself – it’s Lieberman who’s suggesting this, but according to a Bizarro-world template.

Not to sound too disrespectful to the ex-bouncer who secured many of my enjoyable nights at the Resnick 12 1/2 discotheque all those years ago, but does he know what he’s talking about?

3) The belligerent tone; I touched on this above, in reference to how he refers to Annapolis and mocks his predecessors, but then there’s this:

In my view, we must explain to the world that the priorities of the international community must change, and that all the previous benchmarks – the Warsaw Pact, the NATO Alliance, socialist countries, capitalist countries – have changed. There is a world order that the countries of the free world are trying to preserve, and there are forces, or countries or extremist entities that are trying to violate it.

"We must explain to the world?"

Let me repeat that: "We must explain to the world?"

As in: "Yo, world, listen up!"

That I want to see from the U.N. General Assembly podium.

Plus, dumping on NATO – am I wrong to suspect that Lieberman has something of a jones for his native land’s oligarchs? And how wise is that, considering how the United States is now seconding NATO into helping to stop arms smuggling to Gaza?

4) Finally (only because it’s post-speech), in today’s Ha’aretz, Lieberman says:

There is no Cabinet resolution regarding negotiations with Syria, and we have already said that we will not agree to withdraw from the Golan Heights. Peace will only be in exchange for peace."

So Israel’s foreign minister just upended the single track where everyone thought the new Netanyahu government and the Obama administration are in sync: Syria.

So, yes, there were stronger or at least equally as strong ledes out there: Israel’s foreign minister suggests NATO is no longer relevant; Israel’s foreign minister rejects Syria talks; Israel’s foreign minister emphasizes security in further dealings with Palestinians; Israel’s foreign minister derides predecessor’s outreach in maiden speech.

And here’s mine: For us newsies, Avigdor Lieberman looks to be the gift that will keep on giving.

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