Lieberman's Shift

Avigdor Lieberman's return to the cabinet has been metby a chorus of international disapproval. Editorialsand news features have critically highlighted hisstaunch support of the West Bank settlemententerprise, his profound skepticism as to theprospects of negotiated progress with the Palestiniansin the foreseeable future, his backing for a deathpenalty for Knesset members who meet with Hamas andHizbullah. Writers have highlighted his early years inMoldova and questioned the depth of his commitment todemocracy. Comparisons have even been drawn withMussolini.Sometimes his positions have been misrepresented, asin articles that emphasize his advocacy of Israelrelinquishing control over some of its Arab citizensbut fail to point out that his proposal is also torelinquish control of the territory in which theylive. His stance on this issue is already complex andcontroversial; presenting it superficially andinaccurately hardly enables clarity of judgement.In truth, some of the concerns raised about our latestminister are resonant, indeed. Lieberman has been ashoot-from-the-lip politician, given to a series ofutterances that, if translated into policy, would havehighly damaging consequences for Israel.In the domestic context, to give just one example,there has been his injured-party talk of the need forgreater controls and restrictions on the police force;in the regional context, there have been a litany ofinstinctive declarations of aggressive intent.Ironically, however, while there has been muchinternational dismay at the notion of so outspoken anddeclaredly militaristic a politician being givencabinet responsibility for regional "strategizing" -primarily in the context of Iran's determined drive toa nuclear capability - the Lieberman rejoining theIsraeli cabinet of 2006 is speaking very differentlyfrom the 2001 model who urged the bombing of Teheran.Interviewed by The Jerusalem Post last weekend,Lieberman now urged that the Iranian threat be handleddiscreetly. "We have to wait and see what the EuropeanUnion, United States, Russia and China do about Iran,"he asserted patiently. "We don't need to be on thefront line on this issue. We just have to sit andwait."Asked to explain why, while Iran's President MahmoudAhmadinejad has so relentlessly cranked up therhetoric delegitimizing Israel, he is now sodramatically toning down his utterances, Liebermansaid only that "what was right five years ago is notnecessarily right today."Often when a big-talking politician's elevation tohigher office is accompanied by a moderating of his orher public statements, the explanation is that "yousee things from here that weren't apparent fromthere."Yet the reverse process appears to be unfolding wherePrime Minister Ehud Olmert is concerned. Until veryrecently, Olmert and the new model Lieberman mighthave reading from the same script. Olmert, too, wasstressing a need for Israel to take a back seat onTeheran's nuclear drive, to give the internationalcommunity time, to underline that this is by no meanssolely an Israeli problem.But Olmert seems to be undergoing a shift - in theopposite direction to Lieberman's. In the last fewdays, he has placed Israel front and center in theeffort to thwart Iran's nuclear ambitions, publiclycomparing the Iranian regime to the Nazis, castigatinginternational indifference to Ahmadinejad's genocidalthreats to the Jews, and directly warning Teheran thatIsrael "does not have the luxury" of allowing it to gonuclear. "When the head of a country says he wants todestroy us," the prime minister said while in Russiaearlier this month, "it does not sound like an emptydeclaration, but something we must prepare to preventthrough all acceptable and possible ways."As Iran closes in on a nuclear capability week byweek, that "luxury" of taking a back seat while theworld does nothing to thwart the program becomes onethat Israel can increasingly ill-afford. Israel, itmust be stressed, does not seek military interventionin Iran. It has reasonably expected that theinternational community would internalize the threatposed by Teheran and would rapidly take concertedaction short of military force to deter the Iranians.But in the face of determined internationalfoot-dragging, if not downright apathy, the last thingIsrael can allow itself is to "wait and see" what, ifanything, the EU, US, Russia and China intend to do.Time is running out, and Israel and others whorecognize the threat owe it to themselves and to therest of the international community to strenuouslyencourage non-military action before it is too late.How ironic that new minister Lieberman is nowattracting international criticism for past aggressiveutterances at the very moment when he has opted for asoftly-softly approach to the issue where he should beforcefully highlighting the dangers.

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