Those who know Avigdor Lieberman personally are aware of a less familiar facet of the Foreign Minister, namely, what a pleasant conversational partner he can be. Lieberman can talk about the arts, his love for cinema and good wine; he listens carefully and seems genuinely interested in what his counterpart has to say. A truly nice man. That is, of course, light years away from his public persona. As a politician and a diplomat he can - at his worst - be as diplomatic as Venezuelian President Hugo Chavez. But this week, during a rare official visit to Washington, it was the other Lieberman who was in evidence: the attentive, unusually diplomatic and reserved foreign minister, graciously thanking his hosts for their support of Israel and for taking "crucial steps against the Iranian nuclear program."
While Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak move easily in Washington, this is not Lieberman's natural habitat. During his visit to Capitol Hill, Lieberman, who is rarely daunted by the press, let Senator John McCain and later, Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, do most of the talking.
Only official photographers were allowed in to the meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and no statements were issued - an unusual step for a meeting with the top official of a close ally. According to the State Department, there was a condensed discussion with Lieberman on a wide range of regional issues, reconfirming "Israel's commitment to the two-state solution" and making clear that "this is the policy of the entire coalition government and their interest in continuing the process of trying to get to direct talks." Clinton also raised the issue of the customs revenues which Israel owes the Palestinian Authority, and said they should be released to the PA. Regarding the reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas, the U.S. administration is taking a "wait and see" approach to monitor how the agreement will actually be implemented (if at all ).
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland mentioned that "with regard to U.S.-Israeli relations, the Secretary reconfirmed our unshakable commitment to the relationship, not only to Israel's security, but to Israel's democracy" - and interesting point to make with Lieberman, whose Yisrael Beitenu party's legislative initiatives are seen by the Israeli left as a threat to democracy.
On the Hill, there were no such reservations from Lieberman's hosts. In fact, it sometimes seemed that the lawmakers were primarily concerned with showing their support for Israel and expressing their disdain for the Palestinian reconciliation agreement and for the Arab Spring. Lieberman seemed almost lost momentarily when the energetic Chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who was hosting him for dinner, rushed him off first to take a photograph with the committee's interns.
Ros-Lehtinen said the Iranian nuclear program is a concern "not just for Israel - (but ) for all of humanity, for all who value peace and harmony and nothing good can come out of Iranian nuclear pursuit. It's a country that swore to destroy Israel and it's a sworn enemy of the U.S." With Lieberman mum on this topic, she went on to refer to the Palestinian unity government as "trouble" and voiced her views of the changes in the Arab world. "There are a lot of folks who look at the Arab Spring with awe and wonder - and we wish it was so - but we share Prime Minister Netanyahu's view that the Arab Spring might lead to the Iranian Winter.
Before his meeting with Lieberman, Senator John McCain said that sanctions against Iran are a step in the right direction, but that the move "wasn't enough" since Iran hasn't stopped its nuclear program. Interestingly, he expressed "our continued support and appreciation for efforts they (Israel ) make on our behalf," with no other apparent reason for this appreciation than what the American media are describing as the Mossad's covert operations against the Iranian nuclear program.
Reverberations of Tuesday night
After Mitt Romney's decisive victories in Florida and Nevada, some Israeli colleagues asked me whether the story is over. Are we in for a boring stretch until the August convention in Tampa?
It's a tough sport, but one that gives even the underdogs a chance to make the winner's speech of the night - only to be dumped later on in the race. Rick Santorum's sweep of all three Republican presidential contests Tuesday night - in Colorado, Missouri and Minnesota - is insignificant in terms of the delegates' vote count needed to secure the Republican Party's nomination for president. But the results humiliated Mitt Romney, who won in 2008 in two of the three states - and provided Santorum with a lifeline for his campaign after a poor showing in previous contests. "I am not a conservative alternative to Mitt Romney", proclaimed Santorum to the applause of his supporters. "I am a conservative alternative to President Obama."
Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz preferred to ignore Santorum and instead attacked the biggest loser of the night Mitt Romney, who is considered Obama's main potential rival for undecideds votes. "Republicans are reluctant to get behind him," Wasserman Schultz, a Florida Congresswoman, said. "Republicans are giving the field of candidates another look, demonstrating that the more people get to know Mitt Romney, the less they like him. They know he'll say anything to get elected, and they don't want a candidate they can't trust." But National Jewish Democratic Council President and CEO David A. Harris predicted that the victory of Santorum, whom he described as "extreme far-right wing, profoundly divisive on social issues and offensively anti-gay" "will help drive away the overwhelmingly pro-choice American Jewish community in droves, reminding them just how extreme today's GOP has become."
This remains to be seen as we proceed down the bumpy elections road, but it's worth noting the results of a new Pew Research Center poll that shows a decline the number of Jews who support or lean towards the Democrats from 72 percent in 2008 to 65 percent in 2011, and a 9 percent hike in support for the Republicans from 20 percent to 29 percent in the same period.
Jews are still overwhelmingly Democrats, but the results of the 2012 elections will show whether the disaffected Democrats who seem to have gone Republican are just "crying wolf" in the poll, and will ultimately vote the same way they always have in the election. Or, then again, it might show that we are indeed witnessing a new trend which one day in the distant future may result in an even breakdown of support for the two parties within the Jewish community.
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