Inside Israel and the Palestinian Territories
Israeli newspapers are abuzz this morning as they mull over the possibility that ultranationalist Avigdor Lieberman could be appointed foreign minister in the government that Benjamin Netanyahu is working to stitch together.
The strong showing by Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel our Home) party in last month’s election – where it won the third most Knesset seats ahead of the Labour Party - has put the Moldovan-born former nightclub bouncer turned bureaucrat in a strong position in the lobbying for top ministerial posts in the new government.
With Israel’s coalition building process such a tortuous and drawn-out affair, speculation, much of it wild, about who will get what job is inevitably rife in the local media.
As we reported yesterday – Netanyahu has ruled Lieberman out as a future defence minister, one of the top jobs in an Israeli government.
Lieberman is also understood to be interested in other key jobs for himself and his people including Justice, Interior and Internal security.
His aides, though, play down talk of all this horse-trading and deal-making.
“He has said he wants the defence portfolio, but he has also said cabinet positions are not a deal-breaker. What’s really important is that we agree on basic policy lines,” Yisrael Beiteinu spokeswoman Irena Etinger said.
Let’s not forget that Lieberman has already served as an Israeli cabinet minister – indeed he was a vice prime minister in Ehud Olmert’s last government before he quit in protest when Israel signed up to the U.S.-sponsored Annapolis peace process.
So why the big hubbub now over a possible stint as foreign minister?
Maya Bengal, in a commentary in the Ma’ariv newspaper, says the prospect “causes disquiet at best and deep concern at worst among the Arab states, Europe and the United States”.
She quotes a former senior Israeli diplomat saying:
“What kind of Israel will be shown to the world when its first representative is a rigid and racist right winger. We are putting in Israel’s display window a figure who is the antithesis of what a foreign minister should be.”
Among the biggest concerns being expressed is the impact that a ‘Foreign Minister Lieberman’ would have on Israel’s key regional relationships – notably with Egypt.
Lieberman’s controversial election campaign slogans demanding Arab citizens’ loyalty to the state of Israel and controversial policy positions about transferring Arab-majority towns in Israel to Palestinian rule are not likely to endear him to any Arab leader — let alone in Egypt which considers itself the fulcrum of moderate Arab states.
Beyond that though are some intemperate past comments that angered Egypt then and still smart to this day.
Four months ago Lieberman said in a Knesset session that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak could “go to hell” if he didn’t want to visit Israel:
“Time and again our leaders go to Egypt to meet Mubarak and he has never made a single official visit. Every self-respecting leader would have conditioned such meetings on reciprocation. If he wants to talk to us, he should come here and if he doesn’t want to come, he can go to hell.”
In 2001, Lieberman told ambassadors from some former Soviet republics that if relations with Egypt should sour, Israel should destroy the Aswan Dam in southern Egypt.
He has also been vocal in his criticism of Egypt for failing to prevent Hamas militants in Gaza using tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border to smuggle weapons that are used against Israel.
One assumes that Netanyahu is taking all this into consideration as he mulls over his picks for his cabinet team.
He certainly only needs to turn on the radio or open a newspaper to hear that seemingly everyone else in Israel is mulling over each of his picks just as carefully as he is.
(Photos: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun and REUTERS/Damir Sagolj)