The truth teller

2009-05-06 00:00

The great virtue of a maverick like Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman is that there is none of the usual pussyfooting around. He says exactly what he thinks. In an interview last week with the Russian newspaper Moskovskiy Komsomolets, he said three quite interesting things.

Lieberman’s first remark swept aside several months of public fretting in Israel about whether President Barack Obama would try to push the country’s new right-wing government into concessions with the Palestinians on settlements and sovereignty that it does not want to make.

The Obama administration will only put forth new peace initiatives if Israel wants it to, said Lieberman: “Believe me, America accepts all our decisions.”

This has certainly been true of all United States administrations for the past 40 years, with the minor exception of the first president George Bush’s administration in 1991-92, but why is Lieberman so confident that it also applies to the Obama administration?

Lieberman clearly believes that the new U.S. president has accepted that there will be no progress towards a “two-state solution” under Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government. Obama will go through the motions of seeking an Israeli-Palestinian peace, as every American president is obliged to, but he will not waste any of his valuable political capital trying to make Netanyahu go where he does not want to go.

The second thing Lieberman said was more surprising, for he has spent the past few years talking up Iran and its alleged nuclear weapons programme as the greatest threat to Israel’s security. Indeed, in December 2006 he called Iranian nuclear proliferation “the biggest threat facing the Jewish people since World War 2”.

Now, suddenly, he has relegated Iran to second place, instead promoting “Afpak” — Afghanistan and Pakistan — to first place. “Pakistan is nuclear and unstable, and Afghanistan is faced with a potential Taliban takeover,” he told Alexander Rosensaft, the Israeli correspondent of Moskovskiy Komsomolets, “and the combination form a contiguous area of radicalism ruled in the spirit of [Osama] Bin Laden.

“I do not think this makes anyone in China, Russia or the U.S. happy,” Lieberman continued. “These countries [Pakistan and Afghanistan] are a threat not only to Israel, but to the global order as a whole.”

This is hogwash, because neither Pakistan nor Afghanistan are currently “ruled in the spirit of Bin Laden”. Afghanistan is governed by President Hamid Karzai, chosen for the job by the U.S. after the 2001 invasion (although much of the Pashtun-populated south and south-east is controlled by the Taliban-led insurgency) and Pakistan has a democratically elected civilian government (although the war in Afghanistan has radicalised the Pashtun-majority regions of Pakistan as well, and Pakistan’s government is making highly controversial concessions to the “Pakistani Taliban”).

But it is interesting hogwash, because the Taliban could win power in Afghanistan and nobody knows what line the military will adopt when it takes back power in Pakistan. It is imaginable that Afpak could pose that kind of threat to Israel at some point in the future, although nobody can say how likely it is.

It is doubly interesting because it tells us what Israeli strategists are thinking. Why has Lieberman just changed his position on the most important strategic threat to Israel? Because he has just become foreign minister, and had all the strategic briefings that incoming foreign ministers get. So now he knows what the general staff and the professional diplomats really think.

In that case, why does Israeli diplomacy and propaganda put all the public emphasis on Iran? Because there is no need to convince the U.S. of the need for military action in Afghanistan, where it is already fully committed, nor of the dangers that a collapse of the current political order in Pakistan would unleash. Whereas Obama’s administration is not committed to military action against Iran, nor are U.S. intelligence agencies even convinced that that country is working on nuclear weapons now. So that’s where the pressure needs to be applied.

That is the real thinking of the Israeli military and foreign policy establishment, and it means that Lieberman should still be touting the Iranian threat in public. But he is an unsubtle sort of guy, so he just gives us the briefing verbatim. And then he says that this means Russia must be brought back into the picture.

“Russia has a special influence in the Muslim world, and I consider it a strategic partner that should play a special role in the Middle East,” Lieberman said. “I have argued for some time that Israel has insufficient appreciation for the ‘Kremlin factor’. I intend to mend this gap.”

It’s not clear whether this reflects official thinking in Israel, or just Lieberman’s own dependence on the votes of Russian-speaking immigrants to Israel. But it is safe to say that Israeli foreign policy is going to be very different under the new government.

• Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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