Yoav Stern
March 9, 2009 - 12:00am

American and European officials have thus far declined to comment publicly on the expected appointment of Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman as foreign minister. Behind the scenes, however, many officials are asking whether this appointment is really necessary - and newspapers on both continents are criticizing the move openly.

The official position in Washington is that Barack Obama's administration will work with whatever Israeli government is ultimately established. Beyond that, American officials are keeping mum.

But the "Lieberman question" continually arises in State Department briefings for journalists and in other forums. And opinion columns in the American press have presented Lieberman in an extremely negative light, with comparisons to Austria's Joerg Haider and even Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, (both use "ultranationalist rhetoric of hate," one paper charged).

No American official is likely to convene a press conference publicly condemning Lieberman's appointment. However, such a choice will almost certainly encourage the U.S. administration to keep its distance from Benjamin Netanyahu's government, as Washington will not want to take the flak absorbed by demonstrating closeness to a government whose public face is widely considered to be a racist.

Moreover, the potential for conflict is already obvious. Even as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in the region last week speaking of the importance of resuming Israeli-Syrian negotiations, Lieberman was publicly declaring that he saw no point in talking with Syrian President Bashar Assad as long as the latter continues to support anti-Israel terrorist organizations.

In Europe, too, officials are keeping quiet, but the matter has been widely discussed in the press.

"Avigdor Lieberman is an anti-diplomat," proclaimed an article in the French daily Le Figaro. "His divisive statements and his 'anti' attitude have helped him gain the image of a dangerous radical."

The German paper Suddeutsche Zeitung described Yisrael Beiteinu as an "anti-Arab" party, while the weekly Der Spiegel recalled on its web site that Lieberman had advocated using the same force in the Gaza Strip that Russia used in Chechnya.

European papers in general have reported widely on Lieberman's new role as kingmaker, and have reminded their readers of his statements in favor of transferring Israeli Arab towns to the Palestinian Authority and making Arab citizens of Israel swear a loyalty oath.

In the Arab world, there has also been no official reaction as yet to the possibility of Lieberman becoming foreign minister.

However, it is clear that this would cause great discomfort in the two Arab states with which Israel maintains diplomatic relations - Egypt and Jordan.

Jordan has refused for years to invite Israel's foreign minister to Amman, meaning Lieberman's appointment would not mark a change in Jordanian policy.

In Egypt, however, the change is liable to be more noticeable. Though senior Egyptian officials have refused to comment publicly on the matter on the grounds that it is an internal Israeli issue, in the past, several of them have described Lieberman as "racist" and "rude."

Cairo was particularly incensed by Lieberman's statement several years ago that should Arab countries launch an attack on Israel, Israel would be justified in responding by bombing Egypt's Aswan Dam, among other targets. Egypt was also infuriated by his statement in the Knesset last October that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak "could go to hell."

Asked at the time for a response to the latter, Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki told Haaretz that Lieberman's comments should not be dignified with a response.

Lieberman's "anti-Egyptian and anti-Arab sentiments," Zaki added, "are well known."


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017