Avigdor Lieberman and Danny Ayalon - Olivier Fitoussi - 28.12.2011
Avigdor Lieberman and Danny Ayalon at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, Dec. 28, 2011. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi
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On Tuesday morning, 100 Israeli ambassadors gathered on Mount Scopus, and together with their host, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, looked out onto Silwan and the Temple Mount. Later they continued toward Abu-Dis, there they peered at the border area and the separation fence. Last year, Barkat and the city he manages caused many of these Israeli diplomats to work overtime, preparing explanations to foreign ministries or media outlets in the countries where they serve. It can be assumed that in 2012, their work will only get harder.

The annual ambassadors' meeting is met with ambivalence by many Israeli diplomats. On the one hand, it provides an opportunity to visit the country for a week, and to be briefed on political matters, as well as internal ministry gossip. On the other hand, instead of a Christmas vacation, these sequestered ambassadors spend long days, from morning to night, inside the Foreign Ministry's auditorium.

The atmosphere in the ambassadors' gathering moved from depression to catharsis. On the one hand, they gripe about escalating international isolation, whereas on the other hand they congratulate one another upon the stopping of the Gaza flotilla sequel via diplomatic means, and upon the temporary derailing of the Palestinian statehood move in the United Nations, launched in September.

Ambassadors who arrived from European states and North America talked about how they are becoming increasingly hated and unwanted, while ambassadors from Asia and Africa spoke optimistically about new markets and opportunities for cooperation in areas such as agriculture and medicine. "Exports to China are at $2.5 billion a year; why isn't this figure $10 billion?" asked one ambassador.

Yet, in contrast to past annual gatherings, one topic kept coming up during all the discussions, this being an understanding that developments in Israel's domestic arena have a negative impact upon the country's reputation overseas. Within hours, ultra-Orthodox men who spit at children in Beit Shemesh, or who threaten women bus passengers in Ashdod, cause huge diplomatic damage to Israel around the world. To garner the extent of such damage, it sufficed to read one of this week's The New York Times editions, which carried three lengthy reports about discrimination of women in Israel, Egypt and Somalia.

Many ambassadors raised this issue during meetings with Prime Minister Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres and in additional discussions. "Once, Israel's democracy was our calling card around the world," reflected one ambassador. "Today, there's a feeling that this is no longer the case."

The ambassadors noted that their workdays are filled up with efforts to explain legislative initiatives against left-wing organizations and mosques, and acts of religious and right-wing extremism. Overseas, these are not marginal subjects. Quite often, the ambassadors say, we don't have answers to questions referred to us.

Nor did the ambassadors really come away from this annual meeting with answers. Netanyahu reiterated that steps must be taken against the exclusion of women, but in the same breath he points out that British critics who attack Israel for trends of right-wing violence, were not so successful in their dealings with rioters in London.

National security advisor Yaakov Amidror minimized the problem of religious extremism. "Portraying Israel as though it is represented by the Sicarri in Beit Shemesh is akin to depicting Americans as though they were the Amish from somewhere in the middle of the US," he said.

Bleak Forecasts

Eran Etzion, head of the Foreign Ministry's policy planning division, is known for his elaborately prepared power-point presentations. Months of analyses, arguments and discussions are packed densely into dozens of slides which present the ministry's annual diplomatic assessment.

As was the case last year, Etzion's presentation at this year's gathering did not leave much room for optimism. One of the slides was particularly upsetting. A big "X" was drawn over the words "peace process;" and the explanation accompanying the slide declared that the process is dead. At least it will not come to life during the coming year.

The Foreign Ministry's view is that developments in the region have foreclosed any prospect of renewed talks between Israel and the Palestinians during 2012. Despite this pessimistic forecast, a virtual consensus has congealed among the ambassadors and also Netanyahu aides Yaakov Amidror and Yitzhak Molcho, holding that the continued diplomatic impasse hurts Israel.

One slide pointed to an equally worrisome trend of "erosion in the special relationship with the U.S." In a separate panel, Washington Ambassador Michael Oren spoke about how relations with the American government are strong and close, and even proudly divulged public opinion poll results which show that support for Israel is stable in the U.S. public.

Ido Aharoni, Israel's Consul-General in New York, a wizard when it comes to polls, interrupted Oren and proposed that he look at the opinion surveys more closely. "Our image in America is worse than it was in the past, particularly among the young educated sectors," stated Aharoni, and explained that once the data are broken down, it appears that entire sectors in the U.S. might not have transferred their allegiance to the Palestinians, yet have simply lost enthusiasm for Israel.

Another worrisome trend in Etzion's presentation involved the European Union's economic crisis. A third of Israel's exports goes to EU countries and thus, Etzion stressed, Israel's economy is bound to take a hit, even it is somewhat delayed. If anyone needed proof of the extent to which the economic crisis worries Israel's political-security establishment, it was furnished in a briefing provided by Mossad chief Tamir Pardo to the ambassadors. For no less than 20 minutes, the Mossad director spoke about the threat to the economy. He devoted less than five minutes to the Iranian threat.

Why did Lieberman read from the written text?

On Sunday afternoon, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman strolled into the large auditorium on the basement floor of the Foreign Ministry building in Jerusalem. Waiting for him were more than 100 senior Israeli diplomats who came from around the world for this third annual ambassadorial gathering; 20 journalists were also in the auditorium.

Lieberman opened with a joke about his relations with Israel's media and what he calls misunderstandings which occur in reports about his statements. "A woman phoned the Abu-Kabir forensic medicine institute and reported that her husband had been missing for four days," Lieberman said. "She wanted to check whether he had, heaven forbid, found his way to the autopsy room. The doctor asked how he might be identified, and she replied, 'he stutters.'"

After the joke, Lieberman delivered his speech. From his first day on the job, Lieberman's style has been free, spontaneous and undiplomatic. "Whoever wants peace, should prepare for war," he had a wont for saying. At the meeting two years ago he called on the ambassadors to stop abasing themselves to states around the world, and at last year's gathering he called Turkey's Prime Minister Erdogan a liar.

Surprisingly, on Sunday Lieberman pulled out a stash of papers and read his speech from a written text. The speech was thoughtful, orderly and even rather careful. Journalists who thirsted for screaming headlines went away disappointed. Some ambassadors attributed Lieberman's uncharacteristic speech to criticism leveled against him as a result of praise he lavished upon Russia's recent elections. "Perhaps had he read from the text during the photo opportunity in Moscow, his thoughts would have sounded different," one ambassador mused.

On Wednesday Lieberman explained that there is no connection between his Putin remarks and the speech he delivered to the ambassadors. He recalled that he also read from a text during his speech at the UN; he said that his speech this week was of comparable significance. He believes that there is uncertainty surrounding Israel's diplomatic situation, that Netanyahu is conducting one policy approach, Peres is upholding another policy outlook, and Barak maintains a third approach. He thought that a written speech might alleviate some of this uncertainty. This time, as in the past, he declared, his policy approach is the most realistic.

Lieberman's source of inspiration: Golda Meir and Mapai

During his speech, Lieberman cited remarks made by then Prime Minister Golda Meir before the Mapai party's main membership, in June 1969. Lieberman referred to Meir's speech in an attempt to substantiate his own claims about the hopelessness of the peace process. "She said some things which were as correct in her day as they are now," said Lieberman, and then quoted Meir:

"Our politicians argue about annexation or non-annexation, about occupied or liberated territories, about whether we are occupiers or liberators, as though the question of whether peace will come tomorrow depends upon this internal argument among us…I think that the tragic dispute between ourselves and the Arabs was never about territory, just as it is not about the territories today; then and now, the argument was about one thing: we want to live, and they don't agree to out existence on any territory at all."

Lieberman forgot to mention just one small detail. Four years after Meir made these remarks, enveloped by the post Six Day War euphoria, more than 2,200 Israelis were killed in a war that might have been prevented. But Golda preferred hanging on to the Sinai Peninsula and the settlements. It is to be hoped that Lieberman is mistaken, and that what was correct in 1969, does not hold true today.