Barak Ravid
Haaretz (Opinion)
July 6, 2009 - 12:00am

It's been 100 days since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government was sworn-in, and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's impact on foreign policy has been negligible. Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have been handling ties with the U.S.; President Shimon Peres has been in charge of dealing with the Arab world and Lieberman and his office have faded into irrelevance.

Whereas, in the coalition agreement, Lieberman demanded to be made responsible for ties with the U.S., Barak is in fact in charge of negotiations over construction in West Bank settlements. Meanwhile, there's no end in sight to Egypt's and Jordan's boycott of Lieberman. In an effort to fill the void, Peres will travel to Jordan's capital Amman to meet with King Abdullah on Tuesday. And Lieberman? In two weeks' time he will tour Argentina, Brazil, Peru and Colombia to counter Iran's influence in Latin America.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy's critical remarks about Israel's hawkish foreign minister, during his recent meeting with Netanyahu, are just the tip of the iceberg. Many diplomats who have met Lieberman got the feeling that there was no one to talk to and that he has no influence over the Israeli decision-making process.

The fact that Lieberman has left a bad impression is evident from a story he himself told Moscow's Jewish community about his meeting with French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner. Lieberman told his counterpart that the "natural growth" of West Bank settlements required continued construction, citing the shortage of kindergartens in his hometown of Nokdim as an example. Kouchner cynically retorted that faced with a shortage, the children of Nokdim could always attend Palestinian kindergartens. "I'm not sure they have kindergartens," was what Lieberman told his Moscow audience he replied. "And even if they did, our kids wouldn't make it back alive."

The French foreign minister was not amused.

Lieberman's visit to Washington constitutes further evidence of his problematic image. Ahead of his arrival, Israeli diplomats had tried to present him as someone pragmatic and reasonable. When he arrived in the U.S. capital, he was not given an audience with U.S. President Barack Obama - even though Peres, Barak and Netanyahu, who had visited before him, had met with the president. Lieberman's aides said in response that they had not asked to meet with Obama.

But the worst was still to come. His meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was described as a disaster. Clinton was reportedly offended by Lieberman's comments during the press conference and when she later accidently fell and hurt her hand, Washington diplomatic circles joked that "she was pushed down the stairs by Yvet," according to a senior U.S. official, who referred to Lieberman by his nickname.

Surprisingly, none other than Barak has come to Lieberman's aid. He tells every foreign leader he meets that he has to run any policy issue past the foreign minister.

Meanwhile, Lieberman's vision of closer cooperation with Moscow is at an impasse. The Kremlin isn't particularly enthused by the idea and Russia's policies toward Israel have stiffened.

Foreign Ministry officials are trying their utmost to protect Lieberman and say every foreign policy decision is made jointly by him, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon and the ministry's director general, Yossi Gal. "It's all coordinated," Lieberman's office insists. "Any attempt to portray a different picture is false."

Other Foreign Ministry officials believe Lieberman isn't interested in being involved in every decision the way former foreign minister Tzipi Livni was. "Foreign policy issues just aren't his flesh and blood," they say. "Perhaps he doesn't want the responsibility of making decisions on such charged political issues as the settlements."

The Yisrael Beiteinu chairman keeps saying the Foreign Ministry needs to return to its roots and focus on advocacy. But what exactly does that mean? Last week Lieberman told a joke to Israeli diplomats being sent abroad - it sheds light on his idea of diplomacy. "A tourist went to the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo and saw a lamb and a wolf together in a cage," Lieberman said. "He asked the zoo keeper, 'How do you get a lamb and a wolf to live together peacefully?' The zoo keeper responded: 'We put a new lamb in the cage every morning.'"


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