Farewell, for now, to the foreign minister who ‘burned many more bridges than he built’

Farewell, for now, to the foreign minister who ‘burned many more bridges than he built’

Avigdor Liberman's supporters hail the overseas visits he made and consulates he opened; his detractors say the 'no more Mr. Nice Guy' top diplomat was a disaster, and hope he won't be back

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman meets with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, in July (photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman meets with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, in July (photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Ministers don’t usually insult counterparts from countries with which they have diplomatic relations. But when it comes to Avigdor Liberman — Israel’s most controversial politician — even seasoned allied diplomats and senior ministers sometimes take the gloves off.

Back in March 2009, mere days after Liberman had been appointed foreign minister, his Egyptian counterpart Ahmed Aboul Gheit not only ruled out any scheduled meetings with the new head of Israel’s diplomatic corps, but also said he’d refuse to so much as shake Liberman’s hand if accident ever threw them together. “If I run into him by chance I’ll make do with making eye contact, but my hand will remain in my pocket,” Aboul Gheit vowed. Presumably, Gheit was responding to various disparaging comments bestowed by Liberman upon Egypt in the preceding years, including a declaration the previous October that then-president Hosni Mubarak, who had steadfastly refused to visit Israel, could “go to hell.”

Such hostility to Liberman — who has routinely branded Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas a “political terrorist,” told the US it is wasting its time in trying to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace, and last week accused Europe of a willingness to sacrifice Israel to the Arabs “without batting an eyelid” — is not limited to the Arab world.

Earlier this year, Austrian Defense Minister Norbert Darabos declared bluntly that “a Mister Liberman as a member of the Israeli government is unbearable.”

Darabos can relax, at least for now. As of Tuesday at 10 a.m., Liberman is no longer foreign minister and deputy prime minister, but rather a defendant fighting to clear his name of fraud and breach of trust charges. He’s still competing in January’s elections, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has publicly expressed the hope that he’ll soon be back in a senior ministerial position — quite possibly as foreign minister again. In the interim, and with an eye on that possible comeback, it’s worth assessing how he’s fared as Israel’s premier diplomat.

In Liberman’s nearly four years at the helm of the foreign service, Israel chalked up some minor diplomatic successes and suffered some major diplomatic defeats — most recently and notably the November 29 vote at the UN General Assembly, in which the Palestinians achieved nonmember observer state status by a crushing 138-9 votes. Israel’s ostensibly unprecedented international isolation (only the Czech Republic, Panama, Canada, the US and four Pacific islands backed Israel in opposing the Palestinian UN vote) has led many observers to brand Liberman — known not only for hardline nationalist views, but for articulating them with no concession to tact or political correctness — as the worst foreign minister the country has ever had.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Others, notably fewer, say they appreciate his straight-talking, take-no-prisoners approach and hail his strategy to strengthen ties with countries outside Western Europe and Northern America. “Liberman visited more foreign countries than any of his predecessors, and under him, more foreign leaders visited Israel than under any of his predecessors,” said a Foreign Ministry official who is close to Liberman. “He also opened more embassies and diplomatic missions than any other foreign minister.”

“The critique of him has been exaggerated,” Abraham Foxman, the head of the Anti-Defamation League and a senior leader of the US-Jewish community, told The Times of Israel on Monday, adding that he believed Liberman would return to head the Foreign Ministry. “He should not be measured by public speeches; he should be measured by the relationships he has established, and in many countries he has established good relationships for the State of Israel.”

Added Foxman: “He is a bete noire. It’s very easy to pick on him, because he’s very direct and sometimes not as diplomatic as people would like in his pronouncements. At the end of the day, I believe the most direct approach will serve everybody well.”

‘In laying the groundwork for a far more sophisticated and global approach to Israeli foreign policy, he has greatly enhanced Israel’s status throughout the world’

Hailing Liberman’s efforts to strengthen relations with countries in Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America, Michael Freund, a former deputy communications director in the Prime Minister’s Office, wrote recently that “These initiatives have strengthened Israel’s diplomatic standing in the world and enabled it to reach out to parts of the planet that are increasingly important from a political and economic standpoint… In laying the groundwork for a far more sophisticated and global approach to Israeli foreign policy, he has greatly enhanced the Jewish state’s status throughout the world.”

People close to Liberman list other foreign policy achievements for which he deserves credit. The so-called Palmer report by a UN investigative committee, for example, declared Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza legal and implied that Israel has the right to stop Gaza-bound vessels — as it did in 2010, when troops boarded the Mavi Marmara and, after being attacked on deck, killed nine Turkish activists. Liberman’s supporters also claim he has worked diplomatic channels to prevent further such flotillas.

During Liberman’s time in office, they also note, Israel was accepted to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN).

The 138-9 vote was both inevitable — due to the automatic majority anti-Israel resolutions enjoy at the UN General Assembly — and of merely symbolic value, they claim. What really mattered was that last year, when the Palestinians tried to win full, binding statehood from the UN Security Council, they couldn’t muster the votes even to necessitate a threatened US veto. It was Liberman’s advocacy, his supporters claim, that persuaded countries like Bosnia-Herzegovina not to support the Palestinian membership bid.

“Achievements like this do not come easily, nor do they occur overnight,” freelance journalist and international human rights lawyer Arsen Ostrovsky wrote last week. “Whilst the United States will always remain Israel’s most important ally, the Foreign Ministry, under the present political leadership, has made a concerted effort to reach out to allies in Europe (and elsewhere) that had been neglected in the past.”

Liberman’s efforts to bolster ties with Russia, the Balkans, the Baltics and nations such as Greece and Cyprus are worthy of particular note, supporters say. And even some detractors partially accept this.

“The relations with Eastern Europe are his one major achievement,” said Alon Liel, a former Foreign Ministry director-general. “That is a big achievement. But all the rest is either meaningless, or things for which he doesn’t deserve any credit.”

Indeed, according to several current and former diplomatic officials, most of the foreign policy successes with which Liberman’s supporters credit him are actually either the result of other people’s work or not genuine achievements at all. His critics also batter him for failing until it was too late to see the danger in the UN General Assembly vote — not merely symbolic at all, they say, since it indicates highly problematic worldwide support for a “Palestine” that has not negotiated modalities with Israel. And they say he rendered himself utterly marginal to the crucial US-Israel relationship because of his bitter, strident and outspoken tough line on the Palestinians.

At the Security Council last year, “Not one single country was convinced by Liberman to change its vote,” a seasoned diplomatic official told The Times of Israel. “Countries vote according to their interests, and not because Liberman visited and spoke for half an hour to the prime minister or the president.” That Abbas was stymied in the Security Council was not due to Liberman’s intervention but to American pressure and the hard work of lower-level Israeli diplomats, this official said.

And while it might be true that Liberman visited more foreign countries than his predecessors, this did little to boost support for Israel, the official added. “Okay, so he invested a lot into Cyprus and Russia. Did it help when we asked them to vote against ‘Palestine’ in the General Assembly?” It did not. Both were among the 138 who voted in favor of the Palestinian resolution.

A foreign minister can pride himself only on establishing diplomatic ties with countries that hitherto had not recognized Israel or had frozen relations, another diplomatic official said. By that standard, Liberman has nothing to crow about. All he did was open additional consulates in Germany, China, India and other countries that already had good ties with Israel. “He calls that an achievement? That’s just like opening another department in the ministry in Jerusalem,” scoffed the official, who preferred not to be quoted by name.

As for the Palmer Report, the prevention of additional flotillas, and Israel’s accession to CERN and OECD, several officials said, these were the result of hard work by professionals in various ministries. “Liberman had absolutely nothing to do with the Palmer Report. He is not an expert in international maritime law, and he was certainly not the one who instructed the Foreign Ministry’s legal experts on how to argue our case,” a ministry official said.

‘You don’t make threats as a foreign minister, you leave that to the defense minister or to the prime minister. Liberman never understood that’

Even the notion that Liberman could claim credit for an improvement of relations with Eastern European countries is exaggerated, said this official. “Poland and the Czech Republic, Romania and Bulgaria have been friendly to us since the fall of Communism, and Hungary is still anti-Israel,” he said. “And countries like Greece, Cyprus and Bulgaria are warming up to us not because of Liberman but because our relations with Turkey have deteriorated.”

Yes, he went on, Liberman invested a lot of time in improving relations with Russia — “but what did he get in return? That [President Vladimir] Putin came this year to inaugurate a statue in Netanya? They still voted against us at the UN. Okay, so some visa restrictions were lifted, tourism and trade relations improved. That’s his great legacy? So he visited more countries than his predecessors did. But the real question is what impression he left behind? What bridges did he build?”

Indeed, Liberman’s undiplomatic, often belligerent rhetoric, especially when it comes to the Palestinians, was even an embarrassment to his own prime minister. At the UN in 2010, he explicitly rejected the declared policy of the Netanyahu government and pushed his own plan to solve the conflict, speaking of “moving borders to better reflect demographic realities” — redrawing the map to place many Israeli Arabs outside sovereign Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud party and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman of the Yisrael Beytenu party hold a joint press conference announcing the two parties joining forces, October 25, 2012. (photo credit:
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud party and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman of the Yisrael Beytenu party announcing the two parties joining forces, October 25, 2012. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Netanyahu’s office was forced to disown the foreign minister’s policy. “The content of the foreign minister’s speech at the United Nations was not coordinated with the prime minister. Prime Minister Netanyahu is the one who is managing the political negotiations of the State of Israel,” the Prime Minister’s Office declared.

Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu has since formed an electoral alliance with Netanyahu’s Likud party, and they are running on a joint list in January, which may help Yisrael Beytenu minimize the damage incurred by his legal troubles. But that partnership has done nothing to reduce Liberman’s belligerence. The attacks on Abbas have continued, and the assault on Europe last week — in which Liberman also compared the EU’s initial silence when Hamas’s Khaled Mashaal vowed to destroy Israel with Europe’s inaction against the Nazis — represented a new zenith or nadir, prompting a howl of outrage from EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. “Mr. Liberman’s reference to Europe in the 1940s in this context is inappropriate and offensive to Europeans,” said her spokeswoman.

Since the attorney general last week chose not to press charges in the major case of bribery and money laundering against Liberman, citing a lack of evidence, leaving only relatively minor allegations in the imminent indictment, many in Liberman’s circle predict he could be back as foreign minister within a few months. His detractors fervently hope this will not be the case.

According to his critics, Liberman was a dismal foreign minister because he never really accepted the obligations and responsibilities that come with the job. “Instead of becoming a statesman, Liberman preferred to stay a politician. This was his basic mistake,” said Liel, the former Foreign Ministry director-general.

“Liberman will be remembered for his big mouth and rough language — and rough language is the last thing you’d expect from a diplomat,” added a veteran Foreign Ministry official. “You’d expect a diplomat to build bridges, not to burn them.”

It may be unfair to single out Liberman for Israel’s increasing international isolation, given the criticism drawn by the Netanyahu government’s policy on the Palestinians in general and West Bank settlement expansion in particular, this official added, “but it affects your image when your number one diplomat speaks to the world as Liberman did.”

“At the beginning of his term he said he had not become foreign minister to be Mr. Nice Guy,” the official recalled. “That’s an odd thing for a foreign minister to say, because that’s precisely your job. You’re meant to be the ‘nice guy,’ the most acceptable face of your country. You’re not supposed to be the one who makes threats; you leave that to the defense minister or to the prime minister.

“Liberman never understood that.” Or, more likely, he never wanted to.

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