In Israel's Foreign Ministry, Verdict Brings End to Months of Uncertainty

Lieberman’s trial, regarding an improper ambassadorial appointment, merely increased the ministry’s existing internal tensions and suspicions.

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There’s one building in the government compound in Jerusalem where workers will be glued to their radios and Internet news sites Wednesday morning. For diplomats in the Foreign Ministry, the verdict in former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s trial marks the beginning of the end of months of uncertainty about the future of their workplace.

For the last 10 months, the Foreign Ministry has been mired in a deep crisis. Lieberman’s trial, regarding an improper ambassadorial appointment, merely increased the ministry’s existing internal tensions and suspicions. The trial featured phantasmagorical scenes in which senior diplomats testified as if someone were holding a gun to their heads.

Ambassadors to key countries were asked about the conduct of the ministry’s appointments committee, and about Lieberman’s involvement in the ambassadorial posting of Ze’ev Ben Aryeh, even as they knew that in another few months, Lieberman was liable to return to the foreign minister’s office and have the power to determine their professional futures. It’s not by chance that some of the witnesses suffered from temporary amnesia when they took the witness stand.

Moreover, the deal Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made with Lieberman, under which the foreign minister’s job would be left open for Lieberman to return to if he is acquitted, left Israel without a full-time foreign minister. Aside from the damage this did to Israel’s foreign relations, Israeli diplomats found themselves in limbo – a flock without a shepherd.

Zeev Elkin, whom Netanyahu appointed as deputy foreign minister, is a talented politician who delves deeply into the issues and has a command of the details, and he is admired by a large portion of the Foreign Ministry’s senior staff. He has displayed diplomatic pragmatism and advanced policies such as the resumption of cooperation with the UN Human Rights Council. Nevertheless, his power was limited.

In the absence of a functioning minister, the Foreign Ministry was put into the government’s spare-parts warehouse. Thus, for instance, responsibility for the Palestinian issue was transferred to Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, while responsibility for the Iranian issue was transferred to Strategic and Intelligence Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz. Moreover, Israeli diplomats had no voice at discussions of the diplomatic-security cabinet.

The problem has worsened over the last two months, and according to senior diplomats, an end-of-term atmosphere has taken over the ministry. Many decisions are being delayed, including the appointment of a new director general, or at least an acting one, and of two new deputy directors general, as well as the future of seven ambassadors who were Lieberman’s personal appointments. These and many other decisions are all awaiting the judges’ verdict.

Lieberman’s return to the Foreign Ministry would probably influence Israel’s diplomatic agenda. During his previous stint there, he conducted an aggressive foreign policy, got into fights with numerous countries and foreign ministers, and waged a personal campaign against Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. He sometimes seemed aligned with Abbas’ rivals, Mohammed Dahlan and Mohammed Rashid, with whom he has a friend in common – Austrian businessman Martin Schlaff.

While Lieberman’s verdict is being read out in the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will be meeting with Netanyahu at the David’s Citadel Hotel, just 500 meters away as the crow flies. The two will discuss the impasse in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, but their ears will be attuned to the judges’ words.

If Kerry only could, he would undoubtedly show up at the courtroom first thing in the morning and grab a good seat. He knows quite well that the judges’ ruling will have a direct and significant impact on his indefatigable efforts to produce an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Credit: Reuters

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