By Rabbi Dow Marmur.
Israel is currently greatly benefiting from not having a foreign minister. Avigdor Lieberman, who helped Prime Minister Netanyahu to do badly in the last general election by joining forces with him, is currently otherwise engaged as a defendant in a criminal case. Netanyahu seemingly bound to keep the job open for Lieberman (in the likely event, alas, that he’ll be found not guilty), has outsourced the work to two cabinet ministers: Tzipi Livni and Yuval Steinitz; it’s not clear what either is actually doing.
But, in characteristic fashion, both are being upstaged by none other than President Shimon Peres. He’s now in Rome as one of the first world leaders to pay an official visit to the new Pope whom he has invited to Israel – and the Pope has accepted. While in Italy, Peres also met with Italy’s president and new prime minister. He’s now due to receive a peace award in Assisi (as in St. Francis of….).
It’s less clear whether this week’s signs of a revised peace initiative from the Arab League is also in celebration of the absence of Lieberman, but it’s reasonable to assume that their overture is likely to get a more favourable reception from Israel’s cabinet now that the foreign minister in absentia is, indeed, absent.
Yet this is probably low down on Netanyahu’s to-do list in view of the urgent issues of Syria and Iran. It’s quite obvious that the United States doesn’t want to get involved in either conflict. But as President Obama has said that Syria will have crossed a/the red line if it’s found to have used chemical weapons, his only way out now is to try to show that the evidence of such use hasn’t been sufficiently established for America to intervene. I think that’s called diplomacy, perhaps even statesmanship.
Israel, of course, very much wants to stay on the sidelines, even though its northern border is in the line of fire. When Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin, in a lame effort to remind the world that he’s there, implied the other day that Israel needs to get involved, the prime minister shut him up.
Possibly taking a leaf out of Obama’s book, Netanyahu is now also trying to tell us that Iran hasn’t crossed the famous red line illustrated in his address to the UN General Assembly. Opinions about that vary. Former Israeli intelligence chiefs have been quoted on either side of the argument, and former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told an audience in New York the other day that Netanyahu makes too much of the Iranian threat. But then Olmert may have his own agenda – and it’s very different from Netanyahu’s.
It seems, therefore, that in order to replace Lieberman, Israel needs a whole battery of foreign ministers, which may explain why rhetoric is bound to replace action. In view of what we know of Lieberman’s activism, rhetoric may be preferable.
Most Israelis, however, don’t seem to pay much attention to the country’s foreign policy. Domestic issues are more pressing. The new ministers of finance and education hint at revolutionary changes and the call for haredim to serve in the IDF is still very much on the agenda. Because it appears to be impossible to make out what all this will mean for Israel, there’s plenty of room for speculation.
I’ll miss it, for we’re about to leave Israel later this week. I’ll also miss being confused at close quarters and sharing my confusion with friends abroad. This means that those who read this will be spared being harangued by me for the next few months.