By Nathan J. Diament
‘There’s no question,’ says former US ambassador to Israel Dan Kurtzer, that Avigdor Lieberman’s electoral win will lead to negative consequences for Israel in the US and elsewhere. Kurzter’s views have been echoed not only by others in the American foreign policy elite, but even in American Jewish circles; not only did the liberal Reform Jewish leader David Saperstein say Lieberman’s “profoundly troubling” views may harm Israel, but so did the hawkish Mort Klein of the ZOA.To my colleagues in the Jewish communal leadership, as well as the many others in the punditocracy – not to mention Israelis – who share this view, I say: Lieberman’s impressive electoral achievement is, to use a cliché, “good for the Jews.” Let me explain.
First, if Bibi Netanyahu is the next prime minister of Israel – even in a “centrist” coalition with Kadima that excludes Lieberman’s party – he will benefit greatly from not being “the most right-wing” Israeli leader on the scene. (And if Tzipi Livni becomes prime minister, such a “rejection” of Liebermanism will be similarly beneficial to Israel’s profile.) Of course, Netanyahu’s critics – in Israel and abroad – will seek to cast his policies on the peace process, settlements and more as “dangerous” and “extreme.” But this will ring hollow and be seen as typical political gamesmanship if Netanyahu’s government is indeed pursuing policies that are well within the mainstream of Israeli politics and has Lieberman out there speaking in more extreme terms.
This dynamic will also apply, albeit perhaps with less force, if Kadima is not in the government and Lieberman is. Even though such a coalition will be correctly characterized as “rightist,” Netanyahu – who as prime minister will be the “face of Israel” to the world – will be seen as moderate, especially if his actual policies do remain mainstream.
But aside from these “tactical” and “optics” benefits to Israel from Lieberman’s prominence, there is a more fundamental message that the election results, coming shortly after the military action in Gaza, can be said to send to policymakers in Washington and other capitals. To borrow from a classic movie: Israelis are mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore. More soberly said, the surge of votes for the Center-Right parties and the collapse of Labor and the far Left can and should be portrayed as the electoral embodiment of a message to policymakers, in Israel and abroad, that the old formulae for addressing the Israeli-Arab conflict cannot be mindlessly pressed yet again.
After the years in which the Bush administration allegedly “ignored” the peace process or came to deal with it “too late,” those who want to see more “active engagement” by the United States are now in power. But it remains incredibly unclear what that means in a landscape that includes Hamas still in control of half the Palestinian territory and firing rockets into Israel, and a Palestinian Authority in the West Bank that still needs the IDF to ensure security there and still has not prepared its citizenry for peaceful coexistence with the Jewish State. Given this reality, no intellectually honest policymaker believes that a peace treaty could be signed, let alone implemented, any time soon.
Thus, while US President Barack Obama acted to fulfill his campaign commitment to address the Israeli-Arab conflict “from day one,” by immediately appointing George Mitchell as his special envoy, neither Obama nor Mitchell has indicated their plans. Many in Israel and in the American pro-Israel community are concerned that Mitchell will dust off his 2001 report and its recommendations for Israelis (an immediate settlement freeze) and Palestinians (eradication of terror cells) and use it as his blueprint. This is certainly what Clinton administration alumni like Kurtzer and Aaron Miller, as well as the activists at J Street and Americans for Peace Now, advocate.
Even though Mitchell traveled to Israel a few weeks ago “to listen” and not more, his plans – and the Obama administration’s – remain opaque as Mitchell, National Security Adviser Jim Jones and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton prepare to come here in the next few weeks. In this context, the vote for Lieberman is a useful, strong and clear message to these government officials (as well as those in Europe and elsewhere) that they cannot pick up where they left off in late 2000. New realities, on the ground and in Israeli – not to mention Palestinian – politics, require new strategies and tactics, not recycling old ones.
Lieberman may be an unsavory figure domestically, but the large electoral support he has garnered may have a positive impact on both political and policy thinking abroad.
By Nathan J. Diament is the Orthodox Union’s IPA Director.