Tough Sell: Pitching Netanyahu and Lieberman in Washington

Friday, March 27th, 2009

James Besser in Washington

Pro-Israel groups are in PR high gear, trying to spin the incoming Israel government as not a problem for a peace process -minded Obama administration.

The good news for these groups is that the presence of Ehud Barak in the next Israeli government could make that job easier, even though it is far from clear what kind of impact the current and future defense minister will have on the government of incoming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who can’t even get himself to utter the words “two-state solution.”

Barak has a history of bold peace process moves; groups that pitch the argument that his presence will lead to continuity in Israeli policy and undisturbed relations with Washington have a leg to stand on, assuming he gets a genuine say on the new government’s policies on negotiations.

Harder to sell is the expected appointment of Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman, a man widely seen as an extremist, as foreign minister.

For weeks, Jewish groups have been preemptively spinning the story that he isn’t so bad. They point out that Lieberman, unlike Netanyahu, favor a two-state solution, but keep quiet about exactly what kind of two-state solution he espouses.

They spin his demand for a loyalty oath from Israeli Arabs as the same as requiring American school children to say the Pledge of Allegiance, ignoring the fact that saying that saying it is not a qualification of citizenship. Last I heard, nobody was barred from voting because they refused to say the pledge.

Their silliest argument is that Lieberman is a secularist who favors liberalized marriage laws in Israel.

That might be an appealing pitch for some Jews who are worried about what Lieberman’s rise represents – is it, as some critics say, the final shift away from the lofty, humanitarian ideals of the Zionist founders? – but it is utterly irrelevant to foreign governments, including the one in Washington.

In the end, the range of pre-government PR maneuvering has an empty ring to it, since everybody knows what really matters is what the hard-to-predict Netanyahu does.

Will he be the pragmatist he sometimes seemed to be in his earlier incarnation as Prime Minister, or the hardliner suggested by his campaign rhetoric? Will he genuinely try to work with Barak and find common ground with the Labor leader, or will he simply use Barak as a fig leaf to cover a hard shift to the right in Israeli policy?

Bibi the pragmatist may get along surprisingly well with the liberal administration in Washington. But the fig leaf scenario won’t sell here; the Obama foreign policy team has a lot of Mideast experience under its belt, and nobody is likely to be fooled.

There’s a third option, possibly the likeliest: the presence of two highly ambitious and political leaders with very different views on Israel’s future could produce the kind of paralysis and instability that has plagued recent Israel governments.

The result then is likely to be a lot of frustration in Washington. But what can the administration do?

The Obama team might be more inclined to apply strong pressure on the new Israeli government if the Palestinians had their house in order and if there was a clear path to resumed negotiations over creation of a Palestinian state. But they don’t and there isn’t. The Gaza/West Bank, Hamas/Fatah divide is as deep as ever. Until it narrows, it will be hard for the administration to do much serious squeezing.

That doesn’t mean the U.S.-Israel relationship isn’t ripe for some friction over issues like settlements, especially since it seems likely Netanyahu will be even less forthcoming on the issue than his predecessors.

But pressure over settlements is something Israeli leaders learned long ago to shrug off. Talk, as they say, is cheap.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.