Israel's Ultimate Rightist Smiles at Kerry. Be Suspicious

AP Photo/Brendan Smialowski, Pool

On Sunday morning it seemed that Israeli scientists, or perhaps John Kerry, had learned how to do personality transplants. The first operation was reserved for Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, heretofore the growling voice of unreconstructed Israeli ultra-nationalism.

"I want to express my true appreciation of the efforts of Secretary of State John Kerry, who works day and night … to bring an end to the conflict between us and the Palestinians," Lieberman told a conference of Israeli ambassadors who were home from posts around the world. Kerry's positions on a peace agreement, Lieberman added, were better than "any alternative proposal that Israel will receive from the international community."

Two days earlier, Lieberman had met with Kerry and issued an upbeat statement declaring that the American-brokered negotiations "must continue." Was this the same man who began his first term as foreign minister in 2009 by declaring that the previous round of U.S.-sponsored talks—the ones between former prime minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas—were over, dead, and that Israeli concessions would only bring "pressures and more war"? That declaration fit the Lieberman we knew before and set the tone for everything he said after. Had one magical conversation with Kerry transformed him?

Well, not completely, and probably very little at all. In the same conference this week with Israeli diplomats, the foreign minister said that his "basic condition" for supporting an agreement with the Palestinians was an "exchange of territory and population." This is the Lieberman we know, and his demand is one that Kerry, much less the Palestinians, cannot accept.

There are two ways to understand Lieberman's sudden change in tone toward peace talks. One reading is that Lieberman is in the first stages of becoming a recovered right-winger—a hawk who finally notices that the status quo of occupation can't go on. If so, he'd be following many other former stalwarts of "national camp," as the Israeli right calls itself. The defections have been going on for years. Olmert is one prominent example. Another is Lieberman's predecessor as foreign minister, Tzipi Livni.

The arc of recovery is well known. In the first stage, the politician stops fantasizing about Palestinian acquiescence in permanent occupation. Instead, he or she begins to fantasize about solving the problem with a unilateral withdrawal to borders that leave most settlements in Israeli hands, or to daydream aloud about a two-state agreement on terms to which no Palestinian would agree. In the second stage, the ex-Whole Land of Israel addict undergoes the therapy of negotiating with real Palestinians and accepts that peace will be based on the pre-1967 borders, that part of Jerusalem will become the Palestinian capital, and that a compromise must be found even on the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

It's possible that Lieberman has just entered Stage I. But until we see further evidence, an alternate explanation is much more plausible: He's still Lieberman, but with a smile.

In Lieberman's last term as foreign minister, his harsh talk made him unwelcome in Western capitals, especially Washington. Then-defense minister Ehud Barak handled relations with America. Lieberman made trips to Moscow and Minsk. The humiliation was absolutely public. Late in 2012, Lieberman was indicted on a corruption charge and had to resign. When Benjamin Netanyahu formed his current government, he left the foreign minister's office empty, available for Lieberman if he got a "not guilty" verdict. Tzipi Livni—now justice minister—had the responsibility of negotiating with the Palestinians, a job which includes a piece of Israel's interaction with Washington. When EU sanctions against settlements sparked a crisis last fall, Livni was called in to negotiate a face-saving deal with Europe. She's now the de faction foreign minister, and she's better suited for the job than Barak.

Lieberman, meanwhile, has been acquitted, has returned to his old post—and can see it becoming as empty of content as it was last term. So he has decided to praise Kerry and to politely say "Yes, but…" rather than roaring, "No" to American proposals. Within the "but" lies Lieberman's political philosophy, as harsh as ever.

Lieberman is a West Bank settler. Unlike other Israeli rightists, though, his fixation isn't on keeping the Whole Land, from river to sea, under Israeli rule. It's on creating an Israel without Palestinian citizens. When he first left the Likud to create his Israel Is Our Home party, he allied himself with far-right advocates of "transfer" of Palestinians from the West Bank. In a 2004 Knesset speech, he cited the "separation of peoples" in the Balkans—a reference to ethnic cleansing during the breakup of Yugoslavia—as a model for a "stable solution" of the conflict with the Palestinians. Another precedent, he said, was the 1974 division of Cyprus, in which "they took the Greeks to one side of the island and Turks to the other side." He did not mention the wars or the war crimes that caused those "exchanges" of populations.

But that speech also signaled a shift: He now proposed "territorial exchange" as well. The Palestinians would get a state, but Israel would keep West Bank territory settled by Jews. And—here's the Lieberman twist—it would cede Arab-populated border regions of pre-1967 Israel to Palestine. The residents of those regions would get no say in the matter. The point was to create an Israel with fewer Palestinians.

As for those who remain, Lieberman's platform calls for measures intended to disenfranchise them. Lieberman hadn't moved toward political center. In the style of European far rightists, he'd marked a national minority as the source of all the country's troubles.

Besides being a platform for ethnic incitement in the present, Lieberman's plan is delusional as the basis for any peace agreement in the future. There's no Palestinian partner for ceding strips of settlement that break up the West Bank. Most Israeli Palestinians aren't interested in having their homes forcibly attached to another country. As  analysts have written, Israeli law and legal precedent do not permit annulling a person's citizenship against his or her will.

So here's the test: Kerry's proposed framework for a two-state agreement is likely to fall with a resounding smack on the Israeli cabinet table in the weeks ahead. If Lieberman's new tone toward peace talks indicate the first stage of detox from his previous ideology, he'll talk about tough choices, drop his old demands and support the framework. If he rejects the Kerry outline because it doesn't include "exchange of territory and population," he's the same unreconstructed Lieberman with nothing more than hopes of a red carpet in Washington, and with a transplanted smile.

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