Lieberman Is Helping to Delegitimize Israel

The first year of Netanyahu's government was a preventive one. It's biggest achievement lies not in anything it did, but in what it prevented. Contrary to expectations, 2009 was not a year of diplomatic breakdown. A rift did not occur between Benjamin Netanyahu's Israel and Barack Obama's America. Contrary to expectations, 2009 was not a year of strategic breakdown. The United States, Europe, even Russia, did not put up with Iran's nuclearization.

Contrary to expectations, no defense crisis erupted in 2009. The borders remained quiet, and Netanyahu didn't embroil himself in any redundant war. Contrary to expectations, the economy did not collapse in 2009. The expected tsunami did not wash away Israel's economy. And, contrary to expectations, there was no political crisis in 2009. In his fashion, Netanyahu managed to stabilize a cumbersome government that was supposed to crumble within a few months.

As of this moment, Netanyahu has not put forth a vision, formulated an agenda or brought peace. He has not revolutionized education nor changed the system of government. But the maligned prime minister did prevent disaster on five different fronts. He blocked landslides that could have turned the public's life into hell.

But Netanyahu must not delude himself. He is still walking on thin ice. The specific successes of his strategic and political moves do not assure his future. Even after a year in office, his government is neither exciting nor leading the way. It is neither resolute nor decisive. It neither sets clear national goals nor demonstrates brilliancy. The government is not dealing with the threats facing Israel beyond the security realm. The primary such threat: delegitimization.

For about a decade, the assault on the Jewish state as such has been renewed and in the past year became an overall attack. A wide coalition of radical forces has leveraged Operation Cast Lead to speak ill of Israel and has used the occupation to delegitimize sovereign Israel as well. It has pushed Israel into a corner and turned it into a semi-pariah state. This has damaged Israeli businesses, academia and security. Israel's ability to use force to protect itself has eroded. And the two-state idea is on the verge of collapse.

A study recently published by the Reut Institute rightly states that the threat of delegitimization has become a matter of survival - requiring a comprehensive change of approach. After half a century of putting the strategic emphasis on the military, Israel must now return to state affairs.

The Foreign Ministry must be just as powerful and effective as the Defense Ministry. It must adopt the Mossad and Shin Bet work ethos and lead a complex and sophisticated diplomatic, public relations campaign, the likes of which we have not seen since 1947.

But there's a problem. The minister heading the Foreign Ministry today is exacerbating Israel's distress over legitimacy instead of alleviating it. This minister cannot solve the problem he is part of. The Arab world abhors him. Europe sees him as a Le Pen-style nationalist. The United States sees him as an embarrassing malfunction.

While Shimon Peres is perceived abroad as the attractive side of Israel, Avigdor Lieberman is seen as its ugly side. He cannot thwart the delegitimization assault while his abusive rhetoric and bullying behavior empowers it. Lieberman is playing into the hands of those who want to portray Israel as a racist, lunatic state.

Ehud Olmert paid a heavy price for one reckless mistake - appointing Amir Peretz defense minister. Netanyahu may pay a similar price for appointing Lieberman foreign minister. There are no fatalities in the legitimacy war. In the short range, it doesn't cost any blood. But in the long range, it is immeasurably more important than the Second Lebanon War.

Netanyahu must rearrange his foreign affairs alignment and adopt an innovative strategy. First, he must dismiss the delegitimization minister without delay and place at the head of the Foreign Ministry a worthy individual who will represent enlightened Israel properly.