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Assigned — Not Sidelined?

Mainstream press coverage of Avigdor Lieberman’s 10-day trip to Latin America, which concludes today with his departure from Colombia, has focused on his absence from Israel during the visits of senior U.S. officials. From Newsweek to the Jerusalem Post, journalists report that Lieberman is being sidelined because of his controversial ultranationalism — a quality Netanyahu must live with in order to keep Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party in his governing coalition.

As Newsweek‘s Kevin Peraino puts it: “The Israeli foreign minister is enjoying a 10-day tour of Latin America, including stops in Rio, Lima, and Bogotá. Officially, his mission is said to be a long-scheduled effort to strengthen ties with South America. Unofficially, Israeli wags suspect, his mission is to stay out of the way.”

The perspective here may be somewhat ossified, however. Lieberman is, of course, a controversial figure who has offended Hosni Mubarak and had Nicolas Sarkozy call for his removal. He recused himself from discussions with American officials about the West Bank settlements because he lives in one of them outside Jerusalem. As long as the main focus of U.S. policy is to obtain an outside veto over Israeli activity in the settlements, Lieberman is likely to be absent from discussions on that head. But what Lieberman has been doing since assuming office is working on one of Israel’s greatest security concerns: isolation. Lieberman has been the principal actor in Israel’s charm offensive with Russia, China, Europe, and now Latin America, with the agenda of strengthening relations and obtaining broad cooperation in discouraging Iran’s development of nuclear weapons.

Lieberman’s native Russian ties give him, it has been postulated, an edge in discussions with Moscow — an analysis that highlights the growing importance to Israel of leverage and goodwill beyond the relationship with the U.S. The trip to Latin America this month represents even more clearly a new policy direction, being the first such visit by an Israeli foreign minister in more than two decades. Netanyahu is scheduled for a visit of his own in November, an even rarer event. Israel’s hope is not only to strengthen ties with regional governments and get cooperation against Iran but also to counter Iran’s own extensive inroads into Latin America.

The latter initiative is emblematic of a U.S.-independent tone emerging in Israel’s foreign policy. Lieberman’s visit to Russia carried such hints as well, producing an emphasis on a common view with Sergei Lavrov regarding the regional dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the need to bring the Saudis and other regional nations into any peace plan.

Analysts who draw their conclusions from a “weak Bibi” perspective — one that assumes Netanyahu must live with Lieberman and not let him do too much — could be missing a more important trend. Lieberman may not be the go-to man for relations with the United States while those relations center on demands regarding the settlements. But Israel cannot allow the settlements issue to bog down its own broader security policy. And Israel’s spearheading of efforts outside the U.S. relationship appears to be accomplished via Lieberman.

We should expect Israel to seek support and leverage elsewhere if the Obama administration’s posture seems likely to both encourage intransigence from the Palestinian Arabs and allow Iran to test a nuclear weapon. It remains to be seen what fruit this “diversification initiative” might bear. But it would be shortsighted to dismiss the “strong Bibi” proposition that Netanyahu is making the best use of all his assets: deploying one set of officials to tend the U.S. relationship, and Lieberman to cultivate the more diverse ones Israeli leaders recognize a need for.


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