Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman lashed out Tuesday at National Security Adviser Yossi Cohen, accusing him and his staff at the National Security Council of trying to undermine Foreign Ministry duties from within the Prime Minister’s Office.
Lieberman’s remarks, made during a closed session of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, attest to a breakdown of trust between his ministry and the National Security Council.
Lieberman had been invited to the committee to brief the MKs on foreign policy issues. But when the floor was opened for questions, two MKs — Ronen Hoffman (Yesh Atid) and Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz) — asked him about complaints by senior National Security Council officials that Foreign Ministry staffers were boycotting the council.
That set Lieberman off on a lengthy monologue about efforts by various government agencies to undermine the Foreign Ministry’s authority, first and foremost the National Security Council.
The law defines the council as a body that prepares policy recommendations for the prime minister, said Lieberman: it has no legal power to carry out policy. He then accused Cohen and his staff of stretching the law’s interpretation to the breaking point, MKs who attended the meeting said.
“They’re essentially violating the law by dint of which they operate,” Lieberman was quoted as saying. Foreign Ministry officials added that Cohen and the National Security Council are “turning themselves into the prime minister’s personal foreign ministry, and we’re not prepared to accept this.”
Lieberman also revealed that he had ordered Foreign Ministry personnel not to attend National Security Council meetings, give the council any documents or briefings or cooperate with it on staff work carried out by the ministry, the MKs said.
Tensions between the Foreign Ministry and the National Security Council have escalated in the months since Cohen took over as national security adviser, but until now, they had not been aired in public. Senior ministry officials said that unlike his predecessor, Yaakov Amidror, who worked closely with the Foreign Ministry, Cohen systematically leaves the ministry out of the loop.
What brought the tensions to a boiling point, however, was Haaretz’s report last Wednesday about a letter Cohen sent, behind the ministry’s back, to the ambassadors of the United States and all 27 European Union countries regarding the breakdown in negotiations with the Palestinians.
Two senior ministry officials said that Lieberman was furious about the letter. In retaliation, he immediately ordered the head of the ministry’s strategic affairs division, Jeremy Issacharoff, to boycott a meeting Cohen had arranged in the Prime Minister’s Bureau the next day with a senior delegation of American officials headed by U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice. The meeting dealt mainly with the West’s negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program, and Issacharoff is one of the government’s leading experts on the issue.
At Tuesday’s committee session, Lieberman said that in addition to the National Security Council, many other agencies are dealing with matters that are properly the Foreign Ministry’s purview. For instance, he said, the Defense Ministry’s political-military affairs department, headed by Amos Gilad, “is conducting an independent foreign policy with several countries worldwide in an improper fashion that causes damage.”
Lieberman also assailed the Strategic and Intelligence Affairs Ministry, headed by Minister Yuval Steinitz, saying it “is a superfluous ministry. They just get in the way.”
Others he accused of undermining his ministry’s authority included the Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Ministry; the Regional Development Ministry; Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who is in charge of the negotiations with the Palestinians, and the National Information Directorate in the Prime Minister’s Office.
“The existing situation creates redundancies and internal contradictions,” Lieberman told the MKs. “This hurts the way the State of Israel looks to the outside world. It’s an absurd, grotesque situation that doesn’t happen in any other properly run country. We look like confused provincials. It’s a disgrace.”
As an example, he cited the United Nations General Assembly meeting in September 2013, at which no fewer than four Israeli ministers sought a meeting with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in the same week. Most of them obtained the meeting, he said, but each minister delivered a different message.
Horowitz said afterward that he was appalled by the picture Lieberman painted and agreed that it is intolerable.
At the close of the meeting, Lieberman voiced support for Hoffman’s bill to define the Foreign Ministry as the government’s lead agency on foreign policy issues.