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What surprises can we expect from Avigdor Liberman?

The pragmatic character of Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman might surprise those who catalogued him in the right wing of Israel's political map.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Finance Minister Yair Lapid (back to camera) congratulate Israeli far-right leader Avigdor Lieberman after he was sworn in as Israel's Foreign Minister at the parliament in Jerusalem November 11, 2013. Lieberman was sworn in as foreign minister on Monday after his acquittal on corruption charges, a development that could further complicate peace talks with the Palestinians. REUTERS/Amir Cohen (JERUSALEM - Tags: POLITICS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) - RTX159MP

On Thursday, Nov. 14, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman sat down to review the headlines in Israel’s media that awarded him the title “the responsible adult,” “the new Evet” or the “conciliatory and placating Liberman.” Two days earlier, the newly-appointed foreign minister jabbed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he called for an “all-clear siren” and urged a stop to washing dirty linen with the United States in public. “We cannot negotiate today’s world without American assistance,” Liberman stated at the ceremony for his reinstatement as foreign minister.

Asked on Thursday whether from now on he would be the new, conciliatory, moderate Liberman, he replied with roaring laughter to his interlocutor: Baloney, these are journalistic delusions. So, what will you be? Liberman was hard-pressed by his interlocutor. Evet replied: “Let’s all wait and see.”

Liberman is by far the most unpredictable politician in Israel. Following his acquittal, everyone opined that he would veer to the right, torpedo the negotiations with the Palestinians and try to take over the Likud Party. A few days later it became apparent that Liberman had swerved to the left. What direction will he take next week? There is no way of telling. In my opinion, Liberman himself doesn’t know. On one hand, he is a calculated politician who can predict and foresee a few moves ahead, allowing him to carefully plan his political maneuvers. On the other hand, he is unpredictable. Having a short fuse, he fires on the go, changing plans on the move. He takes advantage of political opportunities when they present themselves, even if it means that he has to come to an abrupt halt and turn — tires screeching — in the exact opposite direction. 

For 17 years Liberman was questioned by Israel’s law-enforcement agencies. This is unheard of in Israel’s modern history. He was under a cloud well before becoming a politician himself while serving as the director-general of the prime minister's office during Netanyahu’s first term back in 1996.

Last Wednesday, Nov. 6, following his acquittal, Liberman was overcome by a feeling that had been foreign to him: freedom. For the first time he can remember, he is no longer under a cloud. The burden has been lifted. All of a sudden he can act freely without trying to understand how his actions will affect investigators, the police, the attorneygeneral’s office, the state attorney or the judges. Liberman is free to be his true self, the one he wants to be.

During the earlier part of his career and not long after he founded the Yisrael Beitenu Party, Liberman presented a challenging, original and bold diplomatic plan in 2004. It agreed to the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, provided the two countries made a land swap. Israel would annex the settlement blocs in the territories, whereas Palestine would receive from Israel areas saturated with Arab Israelis, who for the last few decades have been calling themselves a Palestinian population for all intents and purposes.

Liberman agreed to waive chunks of sovereign Israel territories within the Green Line. Areas such as Wadi Ara in the north and the villages in the “triangle” in the center-east, which consist of hundreds of thousands of Arab Israeli citizens with full rights, would be handed over to the Palestinians. Israel, in turn, would get to keep the large settlement blocs.

This is the only way to ensure two stable nation-states, Liberman opined. It is inconceivable, he explained, to have a pure Palestinian state that is unwilling to allow even one single Israeli in its midst, while Israel, on the other hand, remains a bi-national state that has an Arab-Palestinian minority that makes up nearly 25% of the population and whose numbers just keep rising. This is an unhealthy situation, he explained, relying on the successful Cypriot model: Greeks to the south, Turks to the north and the whole strife is put to rest.

In the setting of his plan, Liberman also agreed to divide Jerusalem. We have no need for the Palestinian villages or the refugee camps that had been annexed to Jerusalem, he asserted. He made his most climactic point when he said that he was willing to give up his home in the settlement of Nokdim in return for genuine peace. I am prepared, he added, to make very painful territorial concessions if that were to bring about true unity among the people of Israel.

Deemed revolutionary, the plan set off a huge storm. From deep down the right-wing circle, Liberman emerged with something totally different. He came up with a Palestinian state with Israel conceding sovereign areas. Armed with this plan, Liberman soared from the position of a small party to an almost-big party. Since then, however, the plan has been collecting dust on the shelf.

When asked recently about his diplomatic plan, Liberman responded wryly: “It is no longer relevant.”

Concurrent with this plan, Liberman nurtured an image of a regional pyromaniac, delivering his famous “Tehran-Aswan” speech (in which he threatened the Aswan Dam in Egypt and Iran’s rulers). He also ruled out negotiations with the Palestinians and torpedoed overtures for negotiations with the Syrians over the Golan Heights.

For most of the time, he was able to have his cake and eat it too. The right saw him as the real deal, although Liberman is essentially a pragmatist, not an ideologue. The left saw the exact same thing. Only Liberman, quite a few voters told themselves, would be strong enough to bring an arrangement and be able to have it endorsed by the public. 

It seems to me that Liberman’s game — namely his dance with both extremes of the political map and his attempt to have it both ways — is nearing its end.

Liberman’s main problem is that his electoral pool is drying up and he has yet to find new growth engines. His last-minute unification with the Likud Party on the eve of the last elections awarded Prime Minister Netanyahu another term in office. However, Yisrael Beitenu dropped to just 11 seats. Had the party run for election independently, the result would have been even lower. The Russian immigrants, whose ballots facilitated Liberman’s race to the top, have been living in Israel for over 20 years. Their “Russkinism” is fading away. Their children, who are already eligible to vote for the Knesset, are sabras (Israeli natives) for all intents and purposes.

Liberman’s plan to flank Netanyahu from the right met an unexpected, tough opponent: Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett and his HaBayit HaYehudi Party.  Liberman’s positions on state and religion — positions which Israel’s centrist parties and the immigrants from the former Soviet Union find so appealing — have been defeated by similar plans from Finance Minister Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid Party and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and her Hatnua Party. Undoubtedly, Liberman requires a jump-start, an urgent reboot. Currently, he is yesterday’s politician.

This week Liberman fostered an unlikely coalition with Lapid and Bennett in connection with appointing his successor as chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. This is a very prestigious and influential position, and the person fulfilling it is exposed to the most sensitive and classified information that Israel’s defense establishment has to offer. Liberman supports the appointment of former journalist and incumbent Knesset member Ofer Shelah from Yesh Atid, despite Netanyahu’s support of the veteran Likud Knesset member Tzachi Hanegbi. 

That’s a surprise too. In contrast to previous assessments, namely that Liberman would now take steps to stabilize the coalition and cool down emotions, he did the exact opposite this week. What will he do next week? Whatever he deems appropriate.

Next week France’s President Francois Hollande is expected to arrive in Israel, following which Liberman will head out for a hectic round of working meetings. The Israeli foreign minister is scheduled to visit Rome, Washington and Moscow. Liberman’s first test under his new identity is the texts he will recite before his different hosts. The fact that he leaves for Washington and from there takes off to Moscow is fascinating. Liberman has always straddled this axis between East and West. His mind understands that Washington is the real deal for Israel, but his heart and soul remain in Russia. Born in the Soviet Union, Liberman speaks Russian, dreams in Russian, counts in Russian and understands Russian. He has fostered deep ties with senior Russian officials, and he is among the few politicians who were quick to congratulate Russian President Vladimir Putin following his controversial victory in the elections.

Liberman has many interests in the Russian capital and former Soviet republics. He has had long-standing intimate relationships with senior Russian echelons. He believes that Russia holds many keys relating to the Middle East. Even during rough times, when it is reported (yet again) that Putin plans to sell S-300 missiles to the Syrians or something in that vein, Liberman is always there to pacify, wink and explain to his interlocutor that the distance between the reports in the media and the actual delivery of the missiles is very big.

The inherent conflict of interest in Liberman’s conduct is particularly conspicuous when it comes to the Palestinian issue. Evet has adamantly refused to have any ties with Palestinian politicians. He has willingly excluded himself from the present negotiations, arguing that as a settler he is caught in a conflict of interests. He has relentlessly attacked the legitimacy of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. That being said, people who know him have noted that he held many discreet meetings with Palestinians in the past, mainly well-known businessmen who are closely associated with the leadership. The atmosphere at those meetings was said to be friendly and intimate.

Liberman’s quirkiest behavior occurred when the late King Hussein of Jordan visited Jerusalem during Netanyahu’s first term. Hussein was a consensual figure in Israel, enjoying massive popularity among the Israeli public after the signing of the peace accord in 1994. He touched the heart of almost every Israeli. Liberman, who at that time was the director-general of the prime minister's office, refused to be in the same building when Hussein arrived at Netanyahu’s office. He collected himself and went to get a haircut at his long-time barbershop in Jerusalem, just so that he would not have to be in the same building together with an Arab leader. Hopefully he has matured since.

On Nov. 24, Liberman’s party caucus is slated to convene. The topic on the agenda is the unification between his party, Yisrael Beitenu, and the Likud Party. Evet’s original plan was to unite with the Likud and then take over the party from within. He wanted to be Netanyahu’s successor and then speed up the latter’s retirement. Meanwhile, this plan has been bogged down. Liberman is anathema to top Likud members. Senior officials like Minister of Internal Affairs Gideon Saar, Minister of Home Front Defense Gilad Erdan and Defense Minister Moshe (Bogie) Ya’alon have no intention of committing suicide and letting Liberman seize their place. 

When asked what the chances were of his party striving to remain within the ranks of the Likud Party, Liberman replied this week that they were very slim. If the parties were indeed to go their separate ways, this would herald a new, uncharted path for Liberman, much harder than the previous ones. He will have to reclaim his spot on Israel’s dense and violent political map.

Right now, it doesn’t look easy. On the other hand, we’re talking about Liberman, the most unpredictable man in Israel. However the chips may fall, it will definitely come as a surprise. 

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