Several people who have met with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman in recent weeks were very surprised by his positive statements about U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. Two of them, a senior Israeli official and a Western diplomat, said that Lieberman spent several minutes praising Kerry and saying that Israel needs to give his efforts to forge an Israeli-Palestinian deal a chance.
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Kerry will meet with Netanyahu this evening and again on Friday afternoon. He will then meet with Mahmoud Abbas on Friday evening, and again on Saturday morning. Saturday night, he will return to Jerusalem for another meeting with Netanyahu, and he may hold additional separate meetings with both Abbas and Netanyahu on Sunday before heading to Jordan.
Senior American and Israeli officials both said that despite the intensive talks Kerry will hold, no breakthrough is expected during this trip and no framework agreement is expected to be finalized. But Kerry is planning to return to the region a week later for yet another round of shuttle diplomacy.
Lieberman’s positive statements about Kerry are partly due to his efforts to turn over a new leaf with the U.S. administration, after his first term as foreign minister was marked by considerable tension with Washington. Leiberman’s first meeting after returning to the Foreign Ministry in November was with U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro; his first speech was devoted to urging the government to tone down its dispute with Washington over Iran’s nuclear program; and his first working trip abroad was to Washington.
But his positive statements are also due to a significant change in Washington’s attitude toward him since his return as foreign minister. A month ago, Kerry hosted Lieberman at a breakfast in Washington. Senior American and Israeli officials who attended the event said it was an excellent meeting – perhaps the best Lieberman has ever had with a senior American official.
Lieberman knows Kerry fairly well from his first term as foreign minister. Kerry was chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations at that time, and the two met four or five times. Their personal chemistry was immeasurably better than the acid relationship between Lieberman and Kerry’s predecessor as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton.
Kerry used their breakfast meeting last month to give Lieberman a detailed briefing on his efforts to mediate between Israel and the Palestinians. He briefed Lieberman on the results of the 20 previous rounds of talks between the parties since negotiations resumed in late July and told him of his plan to draft a framework agreement and present it to the parties in late January or early February.
Lieberman’s conclusion from this meeting was that Kerry is extremely determined to advance an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. He views his American counterpart’s efforts as the most genuine and serious effort any U.S. administration has made to forge a final-status deal since former President Bill Clinton convened the Camp David summit in 2000.
Lieberman is still skeptical of the chances of reaching a peace agreement, and he still doubts that Abbas has either the will or the ability to make the necessary compromises. But he doesn’t rule out the possibility that Kerry’s goodwill, energy and persistence, combined with the difficulty Abbas would have in saying no to an American initiative, could ultimately produce a diplomatic breakthrough.
In 2009, when Lieberman, then a brand-new foreign minister, met for the first time with George Mitchell, then America’s special envoy to the peace process, he emphasized that he disagreed with the U.S. approach to the Palestinian issue, but said he didn’t intend to play the spoiler.
In 2014, Lieberman is willing to extend a credit line to Kerry’s efforts. Surprisingly, he is currently one of the more dovish members of the diplomatic-security cabinet: His views of the American peace initiative are closer to those of Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who is leading the talks with the Palestinians, than to those of its most outspoken opponents, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett.
Two days after his scheduled meeting with Kerry on Friday, Lieberman will address the opening session of the annual conference of Israeli ambassadors at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem. If he uses this speech to voice public backing for Kerry’s move, that will be excellent news for the U.S. secretary of state.