Since he returned to his post as Israel’s foreign minister after a break to fend off failed attempts to prosecute him on corruption charges, Avigdor Lieberman has been treated with the same disdain by the international media and many of Israel’s foreign friends as he got before he was finally acquitted after a decade-long prosecution. Even in Israel’s roughhouse political scene, Lieberman is the proverbial bull in a china shop. The general assumption is that Lieberman, who does not speak fluent English and has a tough-guy political fixer image dating back to his origins in the former Soviet Union, can’t be trusted to deal with nuanced issues. Prime Minister Netanyahu stripped him of any responsibility for relations with the United States as well as the peace process with the Palestinians since he first assumed this crucial Cabinet post. But though Lieberman’s significance has more to do with domestic Israeli politics, occasionally he utters statements that show us he has a better grasp of the situation than the wise guys who often put him down as being out of his depth.
That happened yesterday when Lieberman addressed a conference of Israeli diplomats in Jerusalem and said something that you wouldn’t have expected from someone associated (at least in the view of many of his country’s critics) with something quite so sensible. As Barak Ravid wrote in Haaretz:
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said on Sunday that Israel must accept U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s proposal for a framework agreement with the Palestinians since “any other proposal from the international community won’t be as good.”
Though that is not what much of the Israeli right—with whose views he is usually associated and for whose votes he will be seeking in the next election when his Yisrael Beitenu Party competes against Netanyahu’s Likud rather than running as its partner as it did in the last two Knesset elections—wants to hear, Lieberman is correct. This does not mean, however, that he is drifting to the left. The minister also noted that although he supports Kerry’s efforts to achieve a comprehensive peace, he and his party will never support an agreement that does not involve an Israeli surrender of territory inside the 1967 lines where Arabs predominate, a position that has been called racist by his opponents. But rather than dismissing this as a poison pill that will, like the Palestinian claim to the “right of return” for the descendants of the 1948 refugees, ensure that peace will never be achieved, Lieberman’s critics should listen closely to what he says.
Lieberman has repeatedly dismissed the Palestinian Authority and its leadership as not being a peace partner, yet he praised the secretary of state for his work in trying to get them to recognize Israel as a Jewish state—a formulation that is synonymous with accepting the end of the conflict. Kerry’s pursuit of an agreement is a mistake at this point because of the division between the Fatah-controlled West Bank and Hamas-controlled Gaza. It’s also foolish to think that any group of Palestinian leaders can sell their people on genuine peace on any terms in the absence of a sea change in opinion that will enable them to let go of an existential conflict that is integral to their identity as a people. Nor should Israelis regard the Obama administration’s clear tilt toward the Palestinians on the issues of territory and Jerusalem with complacency.
Peace process enthusiasts who prefer to ignore the truth about the Palestinians consider such views intemperate. Yet Lieberman is correct when he notes that Kerry’s acceptance of Israel’s demand that the PA accept Israel as a Jewish state—something that its leader Mahmoud Abbas has sworn he will never do—is a victory of sorts. That is something Israel cannot expect to hear, as Lieberman notes, from anyone else in the international community.
Yet it is likely that Lieberman’s resurrection of his party’s proposal for trading the “triangle” of Arab towns adjacent to the “green line” in Israel’s central region will cause his usual detractors to dismiss him as someone seeking to sabotage chances for peace. But while it is difficult to imagine this ever happening, it is possible that this seemingly radical idea may not be as unreasonable as some think.
After all, if it is a given that peace requires some Israelis to be turned out of their homes in communities in the West Bank and that other such settlements in blocs close to the pre-1967 lines should be incorporated into the Jewish state in exchange for other Israeli territory, why should that swap involve areas where people who now call themselves Palestinians rather than “Israeli Arabs” predominate?
There are two reasons that explain why the Palestinians refuse even to consider, must less to discuss this proposal.
One is that their notion of swaps—a concept specifically endorsed by President Obama—is so minimal as to be insignificant. Even if one assumes that the PA is serious about wanting peace—something that its ongoing policy of honoring terrorists who have murdered Israeli civilians and fomenting hatred against Israel and Jews renders not credible—it has shown little willingness to accept a map based more on demographic reality than a rigid insistence on the 1967 lines.
The other is that their goal is not to have two states for two peoples—the concept that Obama, Kerry, and the Israelis have discussed—but a Jew-free Palestinian Arab state on one side of the border and a mixed Jewish-Arab nation on the other whose balance would be altered by an influx of millions of Arabs, vastly overwhelming the Jewish majority and, in the bargain, expunging the explicitly Jewish state the United Nations voted to establish in 1947. While some Israelis have spoken of accepting a token number of these so-called refugees, Lieberman is right to refuse a single one, a stance justified by the international community’s unwillingness to recognize the fact that an equal number of Jewish refugees from the Arab and Muslim world lost their homes after 1948.
Of course, it is understandable that the Arab citizens of the triangle would prefer to stay inside Israel where, despite their complaints and alienation from the Jewish state, they enjoy its democracy and equal rights that no Palestinian enjoys under the rule of either Fatah or Hamas. But the very fact that Arabs would prefer to live in a majority Jewish state than to be incorporated into the putative Palestinian one tells us a lot about what kind of country that would be.
No one should expect Netanyahu, let alone Kerry, to start listening to Lieberman. But rather than dismissing him, perhaps the secretary should be listening closely to the foreign minister’s insights. Until he can convince the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state and negotiate a deal that would truly be a solution of two states for two peoples, Kerry’s peace efforts will remain a fool’s errand.