Jeff Barak
The Jerusalem Post (Opinion)
March 22, 2009 - 12:00am

Ehud Barak's shameless determination to stay on at the Defense Ministry, even at the expense of destroying the Labor Party and making a mockery of the election results, is diverting attention from a more problematic ministerial appointment: the choice of Avigdor Lieberman as foreign minister.

First of all, Lieberman needs to smarten up. A foreign minister cannot wander around with his shirt collar undone and his tie halfway down his chest. For someone who obviously cares about his appearance - who else in Israel wears, of all things, a tie pin? - Lieberman's slovenly attitude toward keeping his tie tightly knotted is puzzling.

Just what kind of image is he trying to project? That of a busy man, so overburdened with work that he has to undo his collar for some light relief or, perhaps, that of a street thug, collar undone, ready for a fight? Ties, and how they are tied, can tell a lot about a politician. Here's Bill Clinton, speaking at Yitzhak Rabin's funeral: "He was a man completely without pretense, as all of his friends knew. I read that in 1949 after the War of Independence, David Ben-Gurion sent him to represent Israel at the armistice talks at Rhodes, and he had never before worn a necktie and did not know how to tie the knot. So the problem was solved by a friend who tied it for him before he left and showed him how to preserve the knot simply by loosening the tie and pulling it over his head."

Clinton went on to reveal that "the last time we were together, he showed up for a black tie event on time but without the black tie, and so he borrowed a tie, and I was privileged to straighten it for him. It is a moment I will cherish as long as I live."

Can anyone imagine the present American president saying it had been a privilege to straighten Lieberman's tie?

FOR EVEN if Lieberman does pull up his socks and close his collar, his international image and, by extension once he is foreign minister, that of Israel, is deeply unappealing. This paper ran a story from Washington last week reporting that there's "concern about him, even among the very pro-Israeli lawmakers."

The Times of London, a pro-Israel newspaper, meanwhile had as a headline: "Avigdor Lieberman - branded Arab-hating racist - set to be Israeli foreign minister" and Lally Weymouth in The Washington Post, in a very soft interview, still felt compelled to ask: "But people in the United States think you are a racist. What do you say to those people?"

Lieberman chose not to refute the racism charge, simply stating, "I think they don't understand our reality," but ignoring the problem will not make it go away. One of the saddest elements of the recent election campaign is not just Lieberman's success, but the fact that his anti-Israeli Arab campaign was hardly challenged by any of the leading parties. Barak's remark that Lieberman "isn't my cup of tea" was not the strongest possible rebuttal of Israel Beiteinu's platform.

Lieberman might be right in saying people outside of Israel "don't understand our reality," but appointing him as foreign minister also shows that we don't understand the West. America sought to put its troubled racial past behind it with the election of the country's first black president; in comparison, we will have as our foreign minister a person who threatened in his election campaign to revoke the citizenship of 20 percent of the country's population because he sees them as a potential fifth column.

ALTHOUGH Israelis and Jews the world over rightly keep a watchful eye out for signs of anti-Semitism, we are often blind to the racist undercurrents in our own society. While we would never tolerate another country singling out its Jewish citizens and demanding they take an oath of loyalty to the state, we tolerate Lieberman and are surprised when the outside world raises an eyebrow. It seems that 1947 statement of Israel's first president Chaim Weizmann that "the world will judge the Jewish state by how it will treat the Arabs" has long been forgotten.

To be fair, Binyamin Netanyahu understands this, which is why he wanted Tzipi Livni to join his government and stay on at the Foreign Ministry. He also understands the damage Lieberman's appointment will have on relations with Egypt, the leader of the Arab world. Already, there have been reports that the Egyptians are planning on boycotting this week's Foreign Ministry ceremony to mark 30 years of diplomatic relations between Jerusalem and Cairo in protest at Lieberman's new role.

And they have good grounds to do so. Lieberman has repeatedly threatened Egypt from the Knesset podium. Last October, he said that if Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak did not want to pay an official visit to Israel, he could "go to hell," while a decade ago he called for the flooding of Egypt by bombing the Aswan Dam in retaliation for Egyptian support for Yasser Arafat.

It will take more than a quick fashion makeover and a crash course in knots to undo the damage Lieberman's slated appointment is likely to cause to Israel's image around the world.


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