Anyone who expected that being made foreign minister would refine Avigdor Lieberman's crass manners was proved wrong by his first appearance in the role. In his speech at the handover on Wednesday, Lieberman brushed aside all the peace processes Israel has been conducting with its neighbors for decades. The government, he said, is not bound by the Annapolis process, Syria can have "peace for peace," and as a general philosophy, "If you want peace, prepare for war."
Anyone still searching for some moderation in Lieberman's statement may have noticed that he accepted the road map, which despite all the stipulations and reservations, leads to the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. But under all the belligerent declarations, especially the sweeping objection to any compromise or concession, it was difficult to infer that Lieberman was really striving to reach an arrangement with the Palestinians.
His promise to keep Israel's commitments in the road map, beginning with evacuating illegal outposts and freezing West Bank settlements, is unconvincing in view of his demand for "reciprocity."
Lieberman's words also contradicted Benjamin Netanyahu's swearing-in speech, in which the prime minister pledged to continue the peace process with the Palestinian Authority on three tracks - economic, security and negotiations on the final status agreement - in the exact format set at the Annapolis Conference in November 2007.
The international reaction to Lieberman's statement was not long in coming. The White House reiterated the United States' commitment to the two-state solution, and both the Syrian president and Palestinian Authority said the statement proves that Israel is not interested in peace. These responses mean that the new government will have to work hard to persuade foreign governments that it is a partner to the peace process.
Lieberman is a political man and has a right to express his opinions. Nor does his new cabinet appointment require him to turn his back on the ideology for which he was elected. But he ought to know that a foreign minister who outflanks the prime minister on the right is ineffectual. The world will dismiss him as an insignificant loudmouth not worth talking to. In all governments, the foreign minister's job is to address international decision-making and propose diplomatic solutions. There is no need for another defense or "strategic" minister, which Netanyahu's government has plenty of.
The state has a bigger problem than Lieberman. If the government is seen as reluctant to achieve peace, renouncing the basic principles of the peace process that are supported by a sweeping international consensus, Israel will find itself isolated. It will have difficulty raising support for its vital needs, beginning with the struggle against the Iranian nuclear program. Israel cannot afford to pay such high tuition fees for Lieberman's education in the Foreign Ministry.
The prime minister has evaded responding to the statements of his political partner, but he cannot escape his supreme responsibility for Israel's foreign policy. Netanyahu must demonstrate leadership and clarify whether his government is committed to the peace process, or merely "preparing for war."
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