Israel’s mainstream media is shocked and amazed at Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s comments that the Arab Initiative “is a dangerous plan, a recipe for Israel’s destruction.” Labor Party members still opposed to Ehud Barak joining Netanyahu’s government immediately seized this opportunity to illustrate why joining the coalition was a wrong move. After all, just three days ago Barak was urging the government “to offer the Palestinians an Israeli peace initiative based on the Arab Peace Initiative.”
Lieberman’s comments have reignited the debate regarding possible clashes between the U.S. and Israel over the peace process. This controversy erupted just days after the Obama administration referred to the Arab Initiative positively.
However, examining the historical record would pour cold water over the outrage at Lieberman’s comments. No Israeli government has accepted the Arab offer so far, and I do not expect any future government to accept it — unless the Initiative is fundamentally altered. When Lieberman claims the Initiative is dangerous, he refers to the version presented in the past — one that includes Israeli withdrawal to the ’67 border with no land-swaps and no recognition of “new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, [that makes it] unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.” Bush’s 2004 letter to Ariel Sharon clearly validates these concerns.
Thus, the difference between Lieberman’s position and Barak’s seems to be one of tone rather than of substance. According to a report regarding the next round of negotiations — which are coming up soon, “The United States is interested in promoting the peace process through a series of confidence-building gestures between Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Arab states.”
In the dialogue about “confidence-building,” Barak believes Israel should say “yes, but,” while Lieberman believes in saying “no.” This seeming discrepancy could be interpreted as little more than diplomatic role-playing: Barak is the good cop, Lieberman the bad cop — which leaves Netanyahu right at the center of his coalition, where he wants to be.