A central tenet of the anti-Avigdor Lieberman campaign currently being waged in both the American and Israeli press is that Lieberman, with the fairly silent consent of Prime Minister Netanyahu, is causing immediate and serious damage to Israel’s ties with the U.S. and, to a greater extent, Europe. The most vivid example cited is the call from EU figures a few weeks ago, warning Netanyahu that ties with the EU would suffer if Israel did not re-affirm its commitment to a two-state solution with the Palestinians.
The most obvious objection to the criticism is that Israel’s ties with the rest of the world always suffer when Israel asserts its independence in foreign policy. Today I heard one Israel radio commentator asserting that “a foreign minister’s job is to put out fires, while Lieberman is going around lighting them.” But is that really a foreign minister’s job? Or is it to represent the nation’s policies and interests in the most compelling way possible, and forge the necessary alliances to advance those policies? I’m not saying whether Lieberman is succeeding or failing at that, but it is really way too early to tell whether his tough stances and unusual maneuvers are helping or hurting. What is clear is that we should ignore anyone who asserts that the definition of a good Israeli policy is one that makes either the Obama administration or the EU more publicly friendly to Israel.
But leaving all that aside, one wonders whether the damage to Israel’s relations with Europe is real at all. Over the last decade, European governments have largely shifted towards far greater support for Israel. The willingness of countries like Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, and Germany to boycott Durban II, alongside the most pro-Israel government France has had since the early 1960s, and the overtly friendly government in the Czech Republic, reflects a Europe that is the most heavily supportive of Israel in a very long time. Part of this may have something to do with Israel’s pulling out of Gaza in 2005, which made it politically easier for European leaders to soften their stances. But there are alternate explanations as well: the combination of 8 years of unflinching American solidarity with Israel, an increasing European awareness that its true enemies are the same Islamic extremists that Israel is fighting, and the actual rise of Hamas, Hezbollah, and the prospect of a nuclear Iran — all these have made a great many Europeans understand that pressuring Israel may hurt Europeans in the long run more than alienating the sources of their oil. If Europe once managed to present a united front in support of Israel’s concessions to the Palestinians, today Europe seems utterly divided.