Israel Bids Adieu to Joe Lieberman, a Staunch Ally in U.S. Senate

In a farewell interview with Haaretz, retiring U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman calls for Palestinian elections, American military aid for Assad's opponents and an end to Congress' partisan feuds.

Natasha Mozgovaya
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Natasha Mozgovaya

The Palestinian Authority's demand that Israel freeze settlements is "an excuse" not to return to the negotiating table, said Senator Joe Lieberman in a wide-ranging interview with Haaretz ahead of his retirement next month.

Lieberman also called the PA's move to upgrade its United Nations status a "mistake." "The real answer here is for them to go back to negotiations without preconditions. The whole business of settlement freeze is really an excuse. I don't mean it doesn't sincerely agitate them, but it wasn't a condition before. And now when Prime Minister Netanyahu is clear about his support of the two-state solution, and there is an overwhelming support among the Israeli people for negotiations, it only complicates the process going to the UN, and I think reduces the confidence of the government of Israel in the Palestinian Authority," said the veteran Connecticut senator, a longtime Democrat who is currently an independent, in the interview held late last week.

"The best thing that could happen except for the PA government sitting down without preconditions is [for there] to be real elections in all Palestinian areas, because part of the problem for Israel is negotiating with only part of the Palestinians."

On the walls of Lieberman's senate office - he has served as a senator for 24 years - are a number of photographs, some with President Barack Obama, others with past presidents and a prominently displayed picture with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Some of Lieberman's liberal critics see his stubborn support of Israel as his Achilles' heel and have argued that Congress has failed to play a constructive role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"I think we played a positive role," counters Lieberman. "Israel is a close ally of the U.S. - both are democratic countries, both hold the same values, both are targets of terrorism... On the other hand, we've been a most generous and consistent financial supporter of the PA in the last decade. And that's a measure of our desire to help them. I think Congress played a constructive role and a unique role [that has given] us credibility with both sides. We still have a unique and indispensable role to play."

Regarding Egypt, Lieberman said that President Mohammed Morsi had been a constructive player in bringing about a cease-fire in Gaza, but the United States should not stand by idly when Morsi "declares himself above the law." Lieberman was referring to Morsi's recent attempt to suspend judicial review of his actions.

"Just because we were grateful for their help in Gaza, it doesn't mean we can put a tape over our mouth and not say to them: 'You can't suspend the right of the courts to review your actions, declare yourself to be the state and believe that you are going to have normal relations with the United States - that we are going to continue our aid."

Lieberman said that U.S. aid should not go to "unstable dictatorial states" in the Arab world and that "we have to base our actions and our relations with these countries on their actions."

The senator called on Washington to arm Syrian rebels as soon as possible, or risk having poor ties with the post-Assad government. The official Washington position is to provide "non-lethal assistance" to President Bashar Assad's opponents.

"In Syria...we should have armed the opposition more fully, including anti-aircraft weapons. I met with the opposition leaders in Turkey and Lebanon pretty early into the conflict, and I think they started as a group of real Syrian national patriots that were seeking freedom and better economic opportunities. But as we pulled back, leaders of the Free Syrian Army couldn't deny that there were extremist Al-Qaida elements coming into the opposition. They told us: 'They are offering our young men more than we are offering them, and therefore too many of our young men are fighting with them.'

"I hope we act quickly," said Lieberman. "It's not too late. We will have little or no relationship with the new Syrian government if they think we weren't there for them."

The senator has frequently been criticized for being too quick to push for American military interventions, but he rejects the charge that he is hawkish. "The U.S. is a target of a lot of adversaries because we are a superpower... I don't make any apologies for my support of our military or us using our military when our security or values are on the line," said Lieberman, who was chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security.

"There was no controversy about our going into Afghanistan because we were attacked. I was a strong supporter of the first Gulf War; I thought we had to get Saddam out of Kuwait. During the 1990's I was a big supporter of American military intervention in the Balkans because what was happening there was the most significant attempt to take advantage of the fall of the Soviet Union: The Serbian aggression...became genocide, so we had a moral responsibility as well as some strategic interest in getting involved. The war in Iraq was the most controversial, but I still believe we had to get in, although there we made some serious mistakes.

Iran is top problem

"Iran continues to be threat number one to the security of the U.S," he says. "It's the most significant state sponsor of terrorism. This is a big the future security of the globe."

Lieberman expresses deep disappointment in the inability of Congress to work together. "Unfortunately, the last two years were the most unproductive, most partisan and uncompromising in my 24 years. I hope we'll be able to achieve an agreement on the fiscal debt and it will end this session in a surprisingly positive way. Politics became too partisan. Too many people come to Washington - Republicans, Democrats, even independents - who want to get things done...and get drawn into these partisan tugs of war. Our first president George Washington cautioned about this in his farewell address, saying that people in the future will be more loyal to their political faction than to the country.... As a result we are leaving problems unresolved.

"The biggest [problem], of course, is our national debt - we are playing with fire here. Another problem is cyber-security. There are ideas about how to deal with our vulnerabilities, but we couldn't find a common ground, compromise between the groups...Unfortunately, in the last years the Congress became good at doing nothing."

Congress post-Lieberman

Lieberman's schedule on the Hill seems as packed as always - on Friday, for example, Senate by 94-0 vote passed a package of new sanctions against Iran that he co-authored, and talks to avoid the fiscal cliff are in full gear.

But the "farewell festival" ahead of his departure from Capitol Hill after 24 years in the U.S. Senate has already begun.

On Thursday, the day the United Nations voted on upgrading the Palestinian status to non-member observer state, the Israeli Embassy in Washington arranged a reception to honor the Senator's work. At the Saban Forum gala in Washington on Friday night, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – who is also leaving – lauded the outgoing senator and joked: "Senator Joe Lieberman is leaving the Senate and going into standup comedy, I’m told. He’s got a lot of good lines; I’ve heard many of them over the years."

At the next Congress - which will remain divided, with the House controlled by Republicans, and a Democratic majority in the Senate – it's not only Lieberman's humor that will be missed.

At his office on seventh floor of the Hart Senate office building, Lieberman's approaching departure is felt. Staffers quietly discuss their next moves, and visitors are inevitably drawn into an atmosphere of "This is Your Life", staring at the pictures that decorate the walls: Lieberman smiling with kids, with firefighters, waving to the ecstatic crowd during his 2000 campaign for vice president as the first Jewish-American candidate.

On one of the walls, pictures hang featuring Lieberman with George H.W. Bush, another one with his son, with former President Bill Clinton, two with President Obama ("To Joe - I always enjoy our conversations") - and more, with all foreign leaders he could put on a wall, including one picture with the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ("To Joe, in lifelong friendship and admiration").

The prominence of Liberman's picture with Netanyahu is not coincidental - compromise has always been the Senator's middle name on Capitol Hill. The veteran senator from Connecticut was considered so stubborn in his support of Israel, the, that some liberal critics saw it as his Achilles's hill.

Lieberman is an Orthodox Jew, but says his faith has never been an obstacle in his public life. "With regard to Israel, clearly in some ways part of my feeling close to Israel is something I share with millions of Christians in this country, which is the Bible, the Torah. I always say when I put my hand on the Bible swearing in the office as Senator, I swear to protect and defend the Constitution of the U.S. and the U.S. That is my responsibility. And in the support I've given to Israel and strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship, I've always felt strongly I had to conclude what I was doing was good for America, not just good for Israel - and of course, I wasn't alone."

Joe Lieberman speaking with reporters in Washington last week. Credit: AP