It was June 18, 2009. Then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had just finished a meeting in Washington with Israel’s new foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman. The press conference after the meeting quickly turned into a public clash between the two, with Clinton calling on Israel to freeze construction of settlements and Lieberman letting her know that this would not happen.
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Shortly thereafter, Clinton left her office on the seventh floor of the State Department and set out for a meeting with President Barack Obama at the White House. On the way, though, she stumbled and broke her right elbow. Of course Lieberman had nothing to do with the accident, but the joke around Washington those days was that Clinton’s fall was a good simile for the atmosphere at the meeting with the Israeli foreign minister.
To call relations between Clinton and Lieberman “chilly” would have been a compliment. Not only did Clinton oppose Lieberman’s positions and worldview; she took objection to him personally. Lieberman’s public support for Vladimir Putin after Russia's parliamentary elections in December 2011 only added fuel to the fire.
Consequently, Lieberman was practically an outcast in the State Department in Washington, not to mention the White House. In the three and a half years he was in office, he visited Washington twice, with more than two and a half years between the visits. Senior U.S. officials tried to persuade Clinton to change her policy toward Lieberman. They explained that unofficially boycotting him would only make him more extreme, and would turn him into a spoiler of any diplomatic efforts the United States would try to advance.
Clinton stuck to her position for a long time and did not try to invest time in developing a relationship with Lieberman. Instead, Dan Shapiro, who was at the time the senior director for the Middle East of the U.S. National Security Council, was given the responsibility of speaking to Lieberman. After he was appointed the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Shapiro continued visiting Lieberman in his office regularly, even after the foreign minister resigned.
Then, in July 2011, things changed. Clinton tried one more time to move ahead the reconciliation between Israel and Turkey. She understood that one of the reasons Netanyahu was hesitating over an apology to Turkey with regard to the May 2010 Mavi Marmara flotilla incident was Netanyahu’s concern that Lieberman, who opposed any apology, would bolt the government.
Clinton spoke to Lieberman a number of times and finally persuaded him to announce publicly that his party would not quit the coalition if Israel apologized. In the event, Lieberman was not put to the test, because the reconciliation came two years later when both Clinton and Lieberman were out of office.
Four and a half years after Lieberman’s first meeting with Clinton, he returns today to the coveted foreign minister’s offices on the second floor of the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem. He now faces a new U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry. From conversations with senior U.S. officials, it appears that Washington will treat Lieberman differently in his second term as foreign minister. Clinton’s semi-ban on Lieberman will apparently, at least at first, become an embrace by Kerry. The secretary of state “intends to work well with Lieberman and at the same time continue his channel of communication with Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu,” a senior U.S. official said.
Kerry is a great believer in direct dialogue and personal diplomacy. He believes that his charisma and vast experience in reading politicians - accumulated during his years as senator - as well as his perseverance, permit him to persuade even people who utterly oppose his views to trust him and back his moves. The fact Kerry managed to bring Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to the table is evidence of that.
It is precisely on this issue that Kerry needs a calm and cooperative Lieberman. The once and current foreign minister puts little stock in an interim status agreement with the Palestinians – not in nine months, and not even in nine years. Lieberman’s updated diplomatic plan calls for a long-term agreement. At most, he is willing to support tactical withdrawals from isolated outposts in the West Bank to link Area A, under Palestinian control, and Area B, under Palestinian civil control and Israeli military control, to a total of 50 to 55 percent of the West Bank to be placed under Palestinian control.
Kerry breathed a sigh of relief last week when Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who is representing the government in negotiations with the Palestinians, told him that Lieberman’s return to the Foreign Ministry is not expected to impact the peace talks - which are treading water, anyway. The message Kerry has received is that even if Lieberman doesn’t think an agreement can be reached, he does not oppose the talks and even signed the coalition agreement with Livni’s party, Hatnuah.
Kerry’s challenge will be, at least initially, to persuade Lieberman not to relaunch his aggressive campaign of previous years against Abbas. In that campaign, he called for the latter’s resignation and disseminated negative information about him through Israel’s diplomatic missions abroad. He also gave a series of interviews in which he accused Abbas of corruption and lack of any public legitimacy to serve at his post. In this context, it may be assumed that Lieberman’s return to the Foreign Ministry will be welcomed with champagne toasts by Abbas’ political rivals, Mohammed Dahlan and Mohammed Rashid. They, by coincidence or not, are friendly with Lieberman’s associate, the Austrian businessman Martin Schlaff.
Lieberman’s return is expected to reduce even further Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s room for maneuver in negotiations with the Palestinians. If Kerry wants to avoid Lieberman becoming a spoiler, he will develop a direct line of communication with him and utilize him in issues where the foreign minister has added value – such as his connections with Russian President Putin, with leaders among the countries of the Former Soviet Union, and with the foreign ministers of the Balkans and Eastern Europe.
When Lieberman enters the auditorium at the Foreign Ministry at 11:30 A.M. today, he will meet anew with Israeli diplomats. At a similar event four and a half years ago, Lieberman left his listeners in shock when, on his first day in office, he delivered a fiery speech against the peace process. In his remarks, he quoted the Roman military writer Vegetius: “If you want peace, prepare for war.” It remains to be seen whether this is once again Lieberman’s message. John Kerry will be listening closely.