Commentary Magazine


Re: Assigned — Not Sidelined?

J.E. Dyer makes an excellent point about Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s very real efforts to develop ties with countries outside the immediate American sphere. It should be pointed out that Israel enjoys deep and extensive relations with governments around the globe — from Latin America to Africa to southern Asia — mostly but not exclusively of a military nature. According to recent reports, Israel surpasses the U.K. as the fourth-largest military exporter in the world (after the U.S., Russia, and France).

But in most cases, these relations have remained under the radar, with one or both sides preferring it that way. The change under Lieberman, it seems, is an effort to gradually move these relationships out of the closet. There are two reasons this might be happening now.

1. The Obama administration is making every effort to convince the world not only that U.S. relations with Israel are changing for the worse but also that it may be steering the United States toward a more limited role in the world. There has been lots of talk online about Obama’s being seen (we may assume deliberately) reading Fareed Zakaria’s book The Post-American World. Although most of what is said about this is silly, at a minimum it does suggest that Obama wants to be thought of as understanding which way the global winds are blowing in terms of American reach and influence. Against that backdrop, it is natural for Israelis to consider the worst-case scenario of a friendship with the U.S. that is not only diminishing but also of diminishing value in a post-American world. Israel’s survival instincts naturally kick in, and an effort to raise the profile of its ties elsewhere makes a lot of sense.

2. The very feature that makes Lieberman distasteful to many Westerners — his power-affirming nationalism — may make him more respected and, frankly, understandable in other parts of the world, especially in places like Russia and Latin America, where strongmen are respected rather than reviled. There is something ingenious about Netanyahu’s deployment of his foreign policy assets, from his assignment of Lieberman to places where he is most likely to be respected and his positioning of Michael Oren (disclosure: friend, former Shalem Center colleague, and fellow Commentary contributor) as ambassador to the U.S., to his own rallying of Israeli public support against Obama’s firm stance on settlements.

It is indeed way too simplistic to look at Lieberman as having been swept under the rug for inner political reasons. That this narrative has carried the day is itself one of Netanyahu’s most impressive diplomatic achievements.