On September 28, 2010, then-foreign minister Avigdor Liberman explained to the world his vision of a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The guiding principle for a final status agreement “must not be land for peace but rather exchange of populated territory,” he said.
“Let me be very clear: I am not speaking about moving populations, but rather about moving borders to better reflect demographic realities,” Liberman told the United Nations General Assembly. “Ladies and gentlemen,” Liberman said from the podium in New York, “this is not an extraordinary insight, and is far less controversial than some may seek to claim.”
But controversial it was (and still is). Liberman’s idea of a creative re-imagining of borders, to establish a Palestinian entity that would include major Israeli-Arab population centers but not Jewish settlement blocs near the Green Line, blatantly contradicted the declared policy of the government.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately distanced himself from his foreign minister’s stance, with his aides stating that the “various issues of the peace deal will be discussed and determined only at the negotiating table and nowhere else.”
Liberman is no longer at the Foreign Ministry, but he hopes to return to the job as soon as he overcomes his legal difficulties — in the shape of an indictment for fraud and breach of trust. Formally, Netanyahu is foreign minister, holding the seat warm for his political ally. But while the prime minister will be busy holding together his four-party coalition, freshly appointed Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin (Likud) will hold the fort.
Elkin reportedly got the nod at the behest of Liberman himself. The two have much in common — both are immigrants from the Former Soviet Union who today live in West Bank settlements and proved savvy enough to make it in Israel’s halls of power. But Elkin’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is even farther away from the official government line than Liberman’s.
Indeed, Elkin, 41, is a staunch proponent of a one-state solution. He does not believe in a Palestinian state west of the Jordan river, and advocates for Israel to annex the entire West Bank.
“For 20 years, we talked about what to give and why. Now the time has come for an entirely different discourse,” Elkin declared at a conference last July. “This is our land, and it’s our right to apply sovereignty over it. Regardless of the world’s opposition, it’s time to do in Judea and Samaria what we did in [East] Jerusalem and the Golan.”
His stance has not changed since. “We will try to apply sovereignty over the maximum that we can at any given moment,” he said at a follow-up conference in January. “It will take time to change people’s awareness but in the end this will penetrate. And then, what seems today like a fairy tale will eventually become political reality, and the reality on the ground.”
Elkin does not only talk the talk. In June, as chairman of the coalition, he voted in favor of a bill that would have retroactively authorized West Bank outposts, despite threats by Netanyahu to dismiss ministers if they supported it.
The bill was defeated in the Knesset, but Netanyahu reportedly sought to fire Elkin, not only to punish him for his disobedience but also because he had dared to publicly criticize the prime minister for opposing the bill and questioned Netanyahu’s pro-settler credentials. At the time, Maariv quoted sources close to the prime minister calling Elkin a “triple agent” who caters to the interests of Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party and of the settlers.
How exactly Netanyahu envisions a final-status agreement with the Palestinians is somewhat unclear, but his government’s official benchmark remains his 2009 Bar-Ilan University speech, during which he accepted, in principle, a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes Israel as the state of the Jewish people.
If that’s his goal, why would he entrust the Foreign Ministry to Elkin, who clearly does not believe in a Palestinian state?
Netanyahu’s spokesman, Mark Regev, said Tuesday that it was the nature of the coalition beast that among 22 ministers and eight deputies will be some with different views. “The prime minister is the first among equals, he’s the one who will lead this [diplomatic] process and he has come out firmly and very strongly for two states for two people,” Regev told The Times of Israel. “You have ministers who are maybe to the right of the prime minister, and you definitely have ministers who are to the left of the prime minister.”
‘If we wants to be taken seriously in the international arena, he has to moderate his views’
Of course, you don’t have to select a deputy minister quite so far to your right to oversee the diplomatic hierarchy. But Elkin it is, with no minister above him.
In addition to Elkin’s annexationist credentials, a Hebrew University study of his voting record found that he opposes freedom of expression and human rights more than any other MK — which is unlikely to endear him to the diplomatic community.
“If he wants to be taken seriously in the international arena, he has to moderate his views,” a Foreign Ministry official told The Times of Israel. “If he keeps on talking like he does, he will not be welcome as an interlocutor in capitals around the world.”
Liberman certainly wasn’t willing to mince his words and soften his positions to be popular among Western diplomats. “But there is reason to believe Elkin is not exactly cut from same wood as Liberman,” the Foreign Ministry source said. “Elkin is subtler and more refined when it comes to international relations. He’s not as brutal and in-your-face as Liberman.”
Former deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon, who was unceremoniously dismissed by Liberman and has since criticized his provocative style of diplomacy, said Elkin has to remember that he is representing the official government position, including its commitment to a two-state solution, and should no longer espouse his own annexationist views.
Liberman didn’t not adhere to that way of thinking, “and that was problematic,” Ayalon told The Times of Israel on Tuesday. But “I don’t think that Ze’ev Elkin will be looking for provocations like the previous [foreign minister] did, and that is very important.
“I am sure he will benefit from experience [and learn] that he cannot recuse himself from dealing with any of the core issues on Israel’s foreign relations agenda,” Ayalon added, referring to Liberman’s refusal to deal with the peace process because he lives in a West Bank settlement. (Elkin resides in Kfar Eldad, close to Liberman’s hometown of Nokdim.)
Before deciding to appoint Elkin, Netanyahu surely had a “heart-to-heart” conversation with him, Ayalon reasoned. Elkin now “knows what’s expected of him. He has to promote the official policy of Israel and the Israeli government. This is not something that you do personally. I am sure he will rise above this and be able to do it.”
Ayalon and many Foreign Ministry officials agree, however, that the absence of a full-time minister is problematic.
“Obviously it’s not a healthy situation,” a ministry official said. “It’s not good in the long run, but if it’s for a short time only, we can survive.” Liberman’s trial is expected to take at least a few months.
Meanwhile, Regev, Netanyahu’s spokesman, defended the decision to leave the minister’s post vacant by pointing to historical precedent. Moshe Sharett, Golda Meir, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir all were prime minister and foreign minister at the same time, he recalled. “I can assure you that Israel’s foreign relations will continue to be handled in a very professional way,” he said.
Complicating matters, though, Netanyahu divvied up the Foreign Ministry’s responsibilities among various ministers, in part to satisfy coalition MKs who pressured him for respectable portfolios.
‘Taking away bits and pieces of our activities and handing them out to other ministries is not going to reinforce the ability and the prestige of the Foreign Ministry’
Former finance minister Yuval Steinitz, for instance, is now minister of international relations, minister of intelligence and minister of strategic affairs. Norway’s foreign minister is set to meet Steinitz, rather than Elkin or Netanyahu, on an imminent visit — drawing protests from Foreign Ministry officials on Tuesday.
Part of Steinitz’s job will also be handling the Israel-U.S. strategic dialogue apparatus, a task that Ayalon fulfilled in the 32nd government.
According to the coalition agreement, Economics and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett will also hold the Diaspora affairs portfolio. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni will be in charge of peace talks with the Palestinians.
All these areas of responsibility used to be unified under the Foreign Ministry, and the shift is not being well-received.
“Taking away bits and pieces of our ministry’s activities, and handing them out to other ministries, that’s not going to reinforce the ability and the prestige of the Foreign Ministry,” a diplomatic official told The Times of Israel. Some senior ministry officials are using even stronger language, telling Haaretz that the events of recent weeks were a “clearance sale” and the “abuse of a corpse.”
Ayalon warned of Balkanizing the Foreign Ministry. “You lose a lot by taking apart an apparatus that is very synergetic,” he said. Israel’s strategic dialogue with the US, the peace process with the Palestinians, the ongoing tumult in the Arab World — all these issues are interconnected and should be handled by one body, Ayalon said.
Yet the current situation is nobody’s fault, he asserted, pointing to Israel’s intricate multi-party coalition system. “Steinitz is great guy,” Ayalon said, “but it goes back to our system, where you reconfigure organizations and bureaucracies according to personalities and according to some kind of political loot. This is of course wrong, but I cannot blame the prime minister or anyone else.”