Thursday, Apr. 30, 2009

Avigdor Lieberman

The new Israeli and American administrations may be on a collision course. And the co-navigator of the Israeli ship of state is Avigdor Lieberman, the Foreign Minister, who heads the right-wing Yisrael Beitenu (Israel Is Our Home) party, the main partner of Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud in the new coalition government.

On April 1, Lieberman told his Foreign Ministry staffers (and the world), "If you want peace, prepare for war." He added, provocatively, that Israel was not bound by the Annapolis framework of November 2007, when Israeli, American and (moderate) Arab leaders agreed that the Palestine-Israel problem would be solved on the basis of a two-state settlement.

Lieberman, 50, was born and grew up in the Moldovan capital, Kishinev, the site, in 1903 and 1905, of iconic anti-Semitic pogroms. He immigrated to Israel in 1978 and is a resident of the West Bank settlement of Nokdim. At times in the past, he has contemplated a two-state solution, even suggesting that Nokdim could be uprooted in exchange for "real peace." But whatever his true beliefs, the Palestinian issue may well soon be irrelevant. The fractured Palestinians, with the Islamist Hamas party setting the tone, are far from ready for a two-state settlement. The issue that is currently, explosively on the table — and will increasingly dominate regional and international agendas — is the Iranian nuclear program. Lieberman believes (as do Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak) that Iranian acquisition of nuclear bombs will mortally threaten Israel's existence.

Though a question mark hangs over Lieberman's prominence in Israel's decision-making (he is under investigation for corruption), he will be one of the most vigorous advocates of a pre-emptive Israeli strike to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities should Western diplomacy fail to curb the Iranian project. With Barack Obama bent on placating the Muslim world and talking with Tehran, here too are grounds for an Israeli-American rupture.

Morris is the author of One State, Two States: Resolving the Israel/Palestine Conflict