Stage Set For A Collision: Lieberman, Netanyahu and Barack Obama


With the expected designation of Avigdor Lieberman as Israel’s next foreign minister in a narrow, right-wing coalition led by Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, the stage seems set for a political collision course between Jerusalem and the rest of the world, including the U.S.

Indeed, giving Israel’s most important diplomatic post to a man reviled in much of the world as a racist for his calls for a loyalty oath from Israeli Arabs, who he views as a fifth column, seems like a willful move toward confrontation. And it couldn’t come at a worse time, when reports suggest that Iran could develop a nuclear bomb by the end of this year and Israel’s window to take military action against Tehran has passed, placing more reliance than ever
on working with Washington to avoid an unspeakable disaster.

Yet despite the need for closer cooperation between the U.S. and Israel, it is not difficult to imagine an early showdown between the Obama administration, which is set on encouraging dialogue with enemies like Iran and Syria as part of an effort to prove to the Arab world that Washington has changed, and a Netanyahu government that seems likely to resist what the U.S. wants.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in her visit to the region last week, set in motion U.S. talks with Syria, reiterated America’s opposition to Israeli settlement expansion and reaffirmed commitment to a two-state solution with the Palestinians. The next Israeli government seems to be on the other side of all three issues.

Indeed, Washington and Jerusalem appear to be headed in different directions. Obama wants change in the name of new foreign policy paradigms through dialogue; Netanyahu wants to hold the line and hang tough.

The truth is that Netanyahu’s plan of promoting an economic peace with the Palestinians as a prelude to a full peace agreement makes good sense, but it’s a political non-starter with all of the key parties. And while everyone acknowledges privately that the two-state solution is at best a distant dream, since Israel’s maximum concessions don’t match the Palestinians’ minimum level of acceptance, not to endorse such a move is recipe for further Israeli isolation. After all, the “Quartet” of Middle East peacemakers — Russia, the UN, the European Union and the U.S. — is committed to the two-state solution, as are most Israeli political leaders. But not Netanyahu.

How will he handle this situation? Has he learned to be more pragmatic after his tenure as prime minister that ended in defeat for him a decade ago, or will his arrogance continue to create problems for him and his country?

The Lieberman appointment is most worrisome, signaling a decision to put narrow coalition agenda politics above Israel’s ability to deal diplomatically with the international community, especially at a time when the Jewish state’s standing continues to erode.

Though the recent Gaza military operation remains popular among Israelis, it has not stopped Hamas or its ability and willingness to fire rockets into Israel’s South. And the deaths of hundreds of Gazan civilians, regardless of who bears the moral responsibility for the loss of life, has deepened the perception around the world that Israel is a military juggernaut, even the new Nazis of the 21st century.

Such claims are a hateful perversion of the truth, but we must face the fact that Israel is seen increasingly as a pariah state, particularly among Europeans; Israeli military officers could face charges of war crimes; Europe’s stand against dealing with Hamas appears to be eroding and even some American Jews, in the progressive camp, talk of rethinking their support of Israel in the wake of the Gaza fighting.

Since Netanyahu can’t say no on every diplomatic front, some say he will look to negotiate with Syria over the Golan Heights, believing that such a deal would be simpler to achieve than one involving the Palestinians, with their own bitter internal conflict between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.

Netanyahu sought a deal with Syria the first time he was prime minister, but nothing came of it.

Washington would welcome such an overture, hoping that a deal between Jerusalem and Damascus would calm the region and coax Syria away from its alliance with Iran. For starters, Syria is a sovereign state, known to keep its word since the post-Yom Kippur War agreement with Israel that still holds.

What’s more, there are few settlers on the Golan Heights to be displaced in a fairly simple deal that would give up the Golan in return for peace and security.

The problem is that Syria is highly unlikely to abandon its strong ties to Tehran, and it has a long and ugly record of thwarting every Israeli overture of peace over many years. (See Bret Stephens’ article, “The Syria Temptation,” in the current issue of Commentary for a thorough history of those failed efforts.)
Not only has President Bashar al-Assad made clear that Israel would first have to give up the Golan and make peace with the Palestinians before commencing talks, but his government has stated that any deal would be a first step toward dismantling the Jewish state.

Not exactly grounds for fruitful discussion.

The potential silver lining amid these bleak scenarios is that Clinton, and by extension Obama, would have a George Shultz experience.

Some may remember the fear in the pro-Israel community when Shultz, then an executive at the Bechtel Corporation, was named to his post by President Ronald Reagan in 1982. But by the time he left the State Department in 1989, he was considered one of Israel’s great supporters. What seemed to put him in that camp was having been thwarted and lied to repeatedly by Yasir Arafat and other Arab leaders in repeated negotiations.

So there is the hope that as the U.S. engages Syria and Iran in talks, it will become evident that neither is sincere about compromise or equitable alternatives to confrontation.

The fact that the new Obama administration engaged in preliminary talks on the Durban II conference and then pulled out after recognizing that the meeting promises to be a sham and disgrace in its anti-Israel agenda, is a positive and hopeful sign.

The question is how much time will be wasted, particularly in the case of Iran, as it speeds its nuclear timetable, before the U.S. concludes that such talks are an empty pretense for stalling. And what will the U.S. do then to prevent Tehran from achieving its nuclear ambitions?

There are no easy answers, but in the meantime, the clock is ticking, and the incoming Netanyahu government will need to find ways to work with Washington, not give the administration an excuse to keep its distance from an increasingly marginalized Jerusalem.

was editor and publisher of The Jewish Week from 1993 to 2019. Follow him at