Summing up Israel ‘s new government in one word: Lieberman
By Yossi Verter
 
 


If asked to sum up the 23 days of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s second government, one word will do: Lieberman. Our new foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has hijacked the national agenda. From the minute he entered the ministry, from his crude behaviour toward U.S. envoy George Mitchell to his interview in the Russian papers and his comments on the Arab initiative, his unfortunate deputy at the Foreign Ministry, Daniel Ayalon, has had to trot after his boss to put out the fires Lieberman has ignited in the diplomatic fields.

Three times already, Netanyahu has had to reprimand his foreign minister, discreetly of course. The last time was on Wednesday, before the cabinet meeting. Perhaps "reprimand" is an exaggeration. "Pleaded" with him, or "begged" him to count to 10 before he opens his mouth, might be a more accurate description.

 

 

Netanyahu realized this week that Lieberman is a heavy burden. He can only hope the foreign minister has learned his lessons. There were signs at Wednesday's cabinet meeting that that may have been the case, when Lieberman clarified that his opposition to the Arab initiative is limited to the issue of the "right of return" for Palestinians – a matter of consensus in Israel – and when he agreed to meet in secret with Egyptian security chief Omar Suleiman and to "express his appreciation for Egyptian President [Hosni] Mubarak," as it was phrased in the official Foreign Ministry statement. The same Mubarak he consigned to hell a few months ago.

 
 

Upon examining Lieberman's statements, one realizes that his positions are the same as those of Netanyahu. But when it comes to diplomacy, style is important. Lieberman cannot tell Foreign Ministry employees, or for that matter a Muscovite newspaper, the same sort of things he says at a rally of his Yisrael Beiteinu party, in the exact same terminology. A person well acquainted with the foreign minister this week said Lieberman simply hasn't yet internalized the fact that in his present post, every sentence he utters is a potential front-page headline and his every word is immediately translated into dozens of languages and distributed to foreign ministries the world over. Yes, yes, the source confirmed, even Lieberman is somewhat naive in his failure to understand the rules of the game. If he fails to grasp them in the future, he must not remain in office, the man said. But he will learn. Despite his image, it matters to him what they say about him abroad. The harmonious duo After 23 days, the duo of Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak is looking like one of the most successful we have known. As of today, these two untrusting individuals – who destroyed all that was good around them when they served, sequentially, as prime minister in the past – are functioning in great harmony. So much so that Barak lifted the veto he had previously imposed on one-on-one meetings between Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and the prime minister, when the latter position was filled by Ehud Olmert. Netanyahu will be meeting with Ashkenazi alone – as much as he wants. The first such meeting will apparently be held next week. Barak is certain Netanyahu won't exploit these meetings to plot behind his back, as Olmert did. Moreover, Barak's people are saying that the relationship between the PM and their boss is such that even if a disagreement between them does arise, it will be a confrontation over ideology and principle, nothing personal. In conversations with his close associates, Barak says something like the following: "A sort of trust has developed between us, alongside recognition that there are inviolable common codes that will always be honoured. We both have reached a kind of maturity. We are aware of the weight of responsibility on our shoulders. There won't be mutual manipulation. There are things we will never do to each other." And Barak himself adds: "Netanyahu is more flexible than people think, and he is far less dogmatic. He has a good grasp of what constitutes international pressure, he understands America and the international community and how important it is for Israel to be a part of the world." Netanyahu talks about "Ehud's tremendous contribution to security" and "his profound understanding of security matters." They talk several times a day and meet – both one-on-one and with others present. It appears as though they like being together. A contributing factor is the absence at these meetings of Kadima MK Tzipi Livni, the opposition leader. Barak never got used to her, whereas Netanyahu saw Livni as embodying the threat of a rotating premiership and power-sharing. Barak has spared him this nightmare. Their bond will be tested by the things Netanyahu tells U.S. President Barack Obama on May 18, say Barak's people. But they believe the defense minister will be able to live with the formula the premier brings to the White House. The adhesive that keeps these two together is strong: Bibi needs a moderate element in a government whose foreign minister is Lieberman. As for Barak, there is nothing good waiting for him outside the government, aside from a disintegrating Labour Party, huge debts and hostile MKs, each with an agenda of his or her own. Deposing Cabel Look at what sort of party Kadima is, Barak tells his people in frustration – a party that is no less democratic than the Labour Party. Its chair decided not to join the coalition, announced her decision to the faction members, asked them to vote and – despite the bellyaches – everyone supported her, and that was that. And with us, Barak complains, the party committee convened and held a secret vote. It was decided by a majority of 16 percent to join the coalition and a third of the faction members are simply unwilling to respect the decision. Had the party committee decided against me, I would have respected the decision and would be in the opposition today, so he says. On Wednesday night Barak decided to depose MK Eitan Cabel as Labour’s secretary-general. Cabel has declared war on him, openly. While the dumping of Cabel will provide Barak with a certain amount of satisfaction, that's where it will end. Had Barak heeded Cabel's advice during the past two years, the party might have been in better shape today. The question is whether Barak even gives a hoot about Labor. Only the boss decides By the time these lines were written, on Thursday morning, no director general had yet been appointed for the Prime Minister's Office. Until now, incoming prime ministers have always entered office together with a director general. The fact that Netanyahu has not yet appointed one has not deterred him from thwarting the appointment of other ministry directors general. The prime minister has made it clear to Likud ministers that their ministries' intended directors general must be acceptable to him. Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon wanted to appoint Naftali Bennett to the post. Bennett was the head of Netanyahu's bureau in the opposition, but he left after quarreling with the boss' wife, Sara Netanyahu. Netanyahu's people let it be known to Ya'alon that Bennett is unacceptable to the boss. Bennett immediately understood the consequences for Ya'alon if his appointment were to go through, and announced that he was withdrawing his candidacy. At the beginning of the week Netanyahu also thwarted Transportation and Road Safety Minister Yisrael Katz's intention to appoint Police Maj. Gen. (ret.) Yaakov Ganot as his director general. Netanyahu first read about the appointment on the TheMarker's Web site, and was very angry. He was then approached by Finance Ministry staffers and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, who asked him to thwart the appointment so Ganot, who currently holds a position at the Interior Ministry, will continue his work in organizing the complicated administration for dealing with foreign workers (the body that will command the Population Registry, the Immigration Authority and the border crossings): "If Ganot leaves in the midst of its establishment, there will be tens of thousands of unemployed people in the country," they told Netanyahu. The appointment was nixed. "This is a huge missed opportunity," Katz said this week. "I wanted Ganot so we could work together on the ministry's most significant task – road accidents. This field is not dealt with sufficiently, and if there is one thing Ganot knows very well, this is it. He established the Traffic Division, he has tremendous experience, he has crystallized ideas. His creative thinking and ability to implement ideas is unrivalled. We could have instituted a serious revolution, but, alas, there's nothing to be done. The Treasury officials told me they would do everything in their power to torpedo the appointment, and they succeeded." I asked Katz whether the pinpoint operation against him is connected to the long-standing rivalry between him and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz. Anat Goren's documentary on the 2006 election shows Steinitz on election night, talking with ad executive Gil Samsonov, who was working with Netanyahu at the time. It was not yet clear whether Likud would have 11 Knesset seats or 12. Katz was in the 12th slot. "I hope we get 11 seats," Steinitz told Samsonov, "so Yisrael won't be in the Knesset." The two have been at odds ever since and there has been a lot of badmouthing. Katz giggled: "Of course not," he said. "In fact we have had a nice relationship and altogether, the person who told me he would do his utmost so the appointment wouldn't go through is Rami Belnikov, head of the Finance Ministry's budget department. It turns out that the Treasury officials believe Ganot will be successful in deporting 100,000 foreign workers by 2010. I find this hard to believe, but they are convinced. Even Bibi told me he has never seen the Treasury officials heap so much praise on anyone." At the conclusion of the most recent cabinet meeting, Netanyahu informed the ministers that the next three government meetings will be devoted to the economy and the state budget. Someone asked: How long will these meetings take? Four hours each, replied Netanyahu. "Four hours?" asked Katz. "Finance minister Steinitz's opening remarks alone will take four hours." 

Posted on Haaretz- 24 April 2009

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