Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s controversial foreign minister and deputy prime minister, sounded uncharacteristically diplomatic during an exclusive interview with The Jewish Week on Wednesday evening in Manhattan.
Fresh from meetings with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington, he praised the administration’s leadership in imposing tougher sanctions on Iran, stressed the importance of maintaining direct dialogue with the Palestinians and indicated his disagreement with those American Jews who assert that President Obama is anti-Israel.
When asked to comment on the negative perception of Obama among some Jews, Lieberman, the leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu party and mainstay of the right in the Israeli cabinet, said, “we appreciate and respect all American leaders,” noting that neither country should interfere in the political affairs of the other.
He emphasized the “close security cooperation” between Jerusalem and Washington as well as Obama’s strong opposition to the Palestinian Authority’s bid for UN statehood, and the sanctions against Teheran, which he described as the most effective effort to date in seeking to convince Iran to stop its nuclear weapons program.
“We are a team player, and it is clear we must consult with America and work with America,” Lieberman said, adding that the relationship is “very close, and not just about ties between heads of state and politics, but between two societies, people to people,” with shared values.
He said he and Secretary Clinton discussed a “long agenda” and held “similar positions on 90 percent of the issues,” with “small gaps” on the remaining 10 percent.
“We understand each other,” he said.
Recent reports in the mainstream suggest that the U.S. and Israel disagree on the time for determining whether and when to stage a military attack against Iran, should sanctions prove ineffective in dissuading its nuclear program. The U.S. is said to believe the deadline for such a decision is not imminent, while Israel thinks it may well be this year.
Lieberman was not specific about timing but said that the alternative to halting Iran’s efforts “will be far graver than even the most graphic Hollywood film.”
The interview took place following Lieberman’s address to more than 400 people at Sotheby’s for the 14th anniversary banquet of Gateways, a New York-based Jewish educational outreach organization to the young.
In his prepared remarks, delivered with a degree of discomfort with the language, the Russian-born minister drew applause when he said of Israel’s security: “I must be very clear – it is both our right and duty to take any and all steps to protect our interests, our citizens and our independent nation-state, the State of Israel.”
He noted that renewed calls this week by Iran’s leader for the destruction of Israel “are not theoretical or empty threats.
“To my dismay,” he said, “I didn’t see anyone who was particularly disturbed by these calls.”
Lieberman characterized Iran’s nuclear program as “the true and primary threat to world peace and to Israel.”
On the Mideast peace front, he said it is “important to maintain direct dialogue” with the Palestinians, and he thanked the U.S. for its efforts to restart the talks.
By contrast, several years ago Lieberman was quoted as saying that such talks were useless. “Nothing is going to come out of this ‘peace industry,’” he said at the time of the Annapolis talks in 2007, “except for conferences and five-star hotels and waste of money.”
Long under investigation for corruption, Lieberman has been viewed as the embodiment of the tough Russian who gets his way. Though early in his political career he worked closely with current Prime Minister Netanyahu, the two are more rivals than allies now within the government, with Lieberman given a credible chance of becoming the next prime minister.
Liberals shudder at the thought, citing him as a threat to democracy because of his alleged anti-Arab views and efforts to rein in left-leaning NGOs. But Israelis on the right credit him as a man who says what he believes and is willing to act on it.
Lieberman continues to insist that it is time to review the Oslo style of peace efforts, which he says “are still deadlocked after 19 years” because they are “mistaken in concept.”
“I don’t believe it is possible to impose peace,” he said in the interview, asserting that first Israel must be “assured of security and the Palestinians of prosperity and then you can move to comprehensive settlement. You need real peace – between states, not just between leaders.”
His message to American Jews is that “it is more important than ever to have unity in support of the policies of the state of Israel” because “we have only one Jewish state.”