White House Fury Forces Lieberman to Say 'Sorry' for the First Time

If the Israeli defense minister didn't immediately understand his comments could impact ongoing military aid negotiations, he eventually realized he had to repair the damage he had caused.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman (left), with Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot at IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv on Tuesday, May 31, 2016.
Defense Ministry

In almost every interview he gives, Avigdor Lieberman boasts that unlike his colleagues, he hasn’t changed his positions over the years; he hasn’t flip-flopped or blinked first under pressure. But the clarification and apology the defense minister issued Monday night shows he has learned the hard way that, as former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon once said, what you see from there isn’t what you see from here.

The wording of this statement, in which he retracted the comparison he made last Friday between U.S. President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s Munich Agreement with Adolf Hitler in 1938, sounded almost hysterical. For the first time in the seven years since he first became a senior cabinet minister, Lieberman was forced to use the word “sorry.” Apparently, even for him, there’s always a first time.

It still isn’t clear why Lieberman issued that unnecessary statement last Friday to begin with. The most likely answer is that his goal was neither to attack Obama nor to annoy Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; rather, his main target seems to have been Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot. If there’s one thing Lieberman hates, it’s appearing to be led by his subordinates – in this case, senior army officers. Lieberman evidently wanted to make clear that policy is set in the minister’s office, not that of the chief of staff.

But the way Lieberman chose to make his point about leadership was disastrous in terms of both substance – a direct, personal assault on the U.S. president – and timing, coming as it did during the critical point of negotiations over a new military aid agreement under which America is slated to give the defense establishment $40 billion over the course of a decade.

Lieberman’s unprecedented apology was preceded by 72 hours of behind-the-scenes developments. Several people involved in the issue said that initially, it didn’t seem as if Lieberman’s comments would spark a serious crisis. One reason for this belief was Netanyahu’s extremely swift response.

About 45 minutes after Lieberman’s statement was issued Friday evening, Netanyahu issued his own clarification in an effort to minimize the damage. Immediately after that, he had one of his senior advisors call U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro to tell him the prime minister had been surprised by Lieberman’s statement, and it reflected the defense minister’s views alone.

Shapiro relayed these clarifications to Washington Friday night, and on Saturday, it seemed the Americans weren’t unduly upset by Lieberman’s outburst and intended to let it pass. But on weekends, senior White House staffers sometimes take longer than usual to read emails and cables from the embassy in Tel Aviv – and especially that weekend, which was when Obama began his summer vacation.

By Sunday, however, the information had been received, and the White House was furious. Obama’s senior aides couldn’t understand how, at the very moment when they were negotiating with Israel over the largest military aid package America has ever given any country, the Israeli defense minister could release a statement like that against Obama. Nevertheless, the White House refrained from issuing a public reaction, opting instead to try to resolve the issue via quiet diplomacy.

Netanyahu understood the depth of Washington’s anger, but he didn’t pressure Lieberman to issue an apology. Instead, he opted to observe from the sidelines and hang his defense minister out to dry – to make Lieberman deal with the fallout of his actions by himself.

The person who did help Lieberman put out the fire was Shapiro, the U.S. official closest to him. Back when Lieberman was foreign minister, Shapiro took care to maintain a dialogue with him, and the two developed a measure of mutual trust.

In his conversations with Shapiro, Lieberman termed his initial statement a “mistake.” It’s hard to disagree. Nevertheless, it’s not clear whether he admitted that he personally erred or whether he tried to shift the blame to someone else.

Shapiro, for his part, explained the mood in the White House to Lieberman. Even if he didn’t say so explicitly, he made it clear that if Lieberman didn’t want to be responsible for the collapse of negotiations over the new military aid agreement, he had better issue an apology as soon as possible.

If Lieberman didn’t understand this initially – and if he had, he might never have issued his original statement – he eventually realized he had to repair the damage he had caused. Between Sunday evening and Monday afternoon, his office prepared several drafts of an apology in consultation with Shapiro, and the final version was issued Monday evening.

In his apology, Lieberman naturally tried to blame the media for the storm he created – as if military or diplomatic correspondents were the ones who had decided to issue a 150-word statement attacking the U.S. president Friday afternoon.

Lieberman, who always told Foreign Ministry staffers never to apologize or capitulate to other countries and whose elections campaigns featured slogans like “my word is my bond” and “only Lieberman understands Arabic,” proved that when there’s nobody else left to blame, he also understands English. Even he won’t be able to dismiss the past few days’ events with his immortal phrase “everything is paradise.”