What the World Really Thinks About Avigdor Lieberman

(According to the WikiLeaks cables)

In a press conference yesterday held by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and his German counterpart Guido Westerwelle during the latter's one-day tour of Israel and the West Bank, Lieberman called on the European Union to take steps against the Syrian regime, demanded that European countries withdraw their ambassadors from Damascus, told Assad he should resign and said that the world should present a unified front against Libya, Syria and Iran. Events in the Middle East allow Lieberman to forget his own troubles at home and finally run the world. But will the world want to conduct itself the way he wants it to?

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Emil Salman

A close look at WikiLeaks documents leads one to wonder. Before the WikiLeaks documents surfaced, we had a pretty good idea of what Foreign Minister Lieberman thinks of the world, and of what Lieberman thinks the world is thinking, and of what Lieberman thinks the world should think. Now that the WikiLeaks documents are available, we can learn what the world really is saying in its own voice; and we can discover that there is no connection between what Lieberman hears and what the world says.

Lieberman's diagnosis of the world is incredibly simple: It can't be trusted (interview with Ben Caspit in Maariv, June 4, 2011 ), and so it "needs to be shown a clear, sharp model, and not something blurred and foggy" (interview with NRG, March 30, 2010 ). The moment the world is shown a "clear, sharp model" (as in the example of the transfer of territories and populations ), and the world comes to understand that "this is the only solution," then "everyone will understand that this [change] is good for the region as a whole," (interview with Ben Caspit in Maariv; question-and-answer page with Avigdor Lieberman on Haaretz's website, undated ).

Is that, in fact, what everyone believes? Not everyone, it turns out, and certainly not the Americans. This fact is made very clear in documents disclosed by Haaretz's Yossi Melman; a large share of these documents remain on his computer, and I read and deciphered them with his help. A cable sent from the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Washington on March 4, 2009 declares: "[Lieberman] is seemingly focused on the end game, assuring the security of Israel as a Jewish state with little concern how Israel gets there," adding that he shows no regard for a signed accord requiring Israel to withdraw some of its citizens from the West Bank.

Do these lines mean that the Americans consent to Lieberman's plan? It doesn't seem so.

Cables that reach Washington are written in a dry, diplomatic language which does not display emotion. Nonetheless, they report on the "very deep anxieties" stirred by Lieberman's words among certain people; and they display concern about the possibility that Lieberman will use his position as foreign minister to block progress in the peace process. Some refer to him as a "warmonger," and point to the damage he caused to Israel's foreign policy with his aggressive declarations concerning Syria (cable written by Ambassador James Cunningham to Washington, February 3, 2010 ). Other cables report on a German newspaper which opined that Netanyahu decided to play a dangerous game by forming a coalition with unworthy partners, and on Polish officials who claim, according to Israel's Ambassador to Poland, David Peleg, that "as a politician, Lieberman should be put in quarantine."

The cables allay worries and make clear that Lieberman apparently "will not be the boss," and will not fashion Israel's foreign policy on matters that relate to the U.S. (for example, a cable from April 6, 2009 makes this point ).

Nonetheless, the cables depart from their usually factual language when they drop hints about American hopes for Lieberman's downfall, pointing to the talk of Lieberman being put on trial soon, but adding that all this is just "wishful thinking."

Is it that the Americans don't understand Lieberman's language, or that Lieberman doesn't grasp their line of thought? Or is it that since "only Lieberman understands Arabic," as his campaign slogan put it, he has trouble learning other languages? Lieberman is quoted as saying after a meeting with foreign ministers from Germany, Britain, the Netherlands and other countries "they all have respect for me, because they know that I am not selling them fool's gold" (interview with NRG, March 30, 2010 ).

Is that really so? Here is what the U.S. embassy in the Hague reported about Lieberman's visit to Holland in December 2009: "Foreign Minister Lieberman's visit was a lesson in how to irritate people and lose friends." Lieberman, this report continued, spoke for 20 minutes without allowing his Dutch counterpart to say a word and engage in dialogue. When, at last, the host, Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen, managed to get a word in, he said to Lieberman: "You need friends," and stressed his own affection for Israel, but added that "Holland cannot defend Israel without it [Israel] taking steps" that justify the support it receives.

With Norway, Lieberman insists, he maintains a different sort of dialogue; he claims to have spoken with Norway's foreign minister several times (NRG, March 30, 2010 ). However, according to a report relayed from the U.S. Embassy in Oslo on February 10, 2010, the Norwegians believe that proposals delivered by Lieberman for cooperation between Israel and Norway are "a fig leaf, more than anything substantive," and the Norwegians want to strike a balance between visits paid by Israelis to their country, and visits made by Palestinians. Is this what Lieberman hears when he converses frequently with his Norwegian counterpart on the phone? Apparently not.

And if not, then with whom is Lieberman really talking when he conducts his dialogues with the U.S., Holland, Norway and other countries around the world? The answer: He holds a dialogue with himself. Some of Lieberman's views are liable to be perceived as being moderate, and even pragmatic, as the U.S. Ambassador notes in a cable from June 4, 2009; but if this is the case, then why do the American messages express hidden hopes for Lieberman's disappearance from the scene, and why do they bother to point out that Israel's foreign minister will have no real influence on the peace process?

The reason is simple, and can be inferred by combining the messages sent from the various embassies: Lieberman, as Dutch diplomats put it, "is unable to conduct a dialogue and trade views," since he doesn't recognize the other's existence. In his dialogue with the world, he plays all the roles - he is the spokesman, the audience, the respondent and the concluding summarizer. He expresses his views, listens to his own responses, relates to these responses, and then sagaciously analyzes and summarizes what happens between his own selves. Others, be they Americans, Dutch, Norwegians or, of course, Palestinians, have no part in this dialogue.

In his play No Exit, Jean-Paul Sartre declaimed that hell is other people. With Lieberman, since there are no other people, hell is I - and one can only imagine how hellish it is to live in a world where, at every corner, as in a hall of mirrors, one can see just one image - that of Avigdor Lieberman.