Last week, Israel’s top diplomats gathered in Jerusalem. Many flew in from across the world. They traded in their suits for black t-shirts and their diplomatic niceties for loud whistles. The senior diplomats were protesting their low wages and poor working conditions. The black t-shirts said “I am a poor diplomat.” Indeed, Israel’s foreign-service professionals have a point. Their salaries have eroded by some 45 percent in recent years.
But if you take one of the diplomats for a private conversation over coffee, off-the-record and away from WikiLeaks, as I did several times recently, you would probably get an earful about frustrations of a different kind. Israel’s loyal diplomats, those who follow in the footsteps of Abba Eban and Shimon Peres, now have to report to Avigdor Lieberman, the populist politician who is to diplomacy what Glenn Beck is to objective journalism.
About two years ago, when Lieberman was about to be sworn in as Israel’s twenty-third foreign minister, I predicted: “The coming years will apparently supply Israel and its friends overseas with many opportunities to not only miss Abba Eban but to fight for the Israel of which they are proud.”
Well, in 22 months in office, Lieberman has not disappointed. He has offended leaders of friendly countries, sabotaged Israeli relations with Turkey (until recently one of Israel’s chief regional allies), worked hard to derail Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, and provoked Israel’s Arab citizens.
He also twice made such outrageous statements that they prompted Prime Minister Netanyahu to publicly declare that Lieberman does not represent his government.
How can an Israeli diplomat expect to be taken seriously overseas when his or her boss is repeatedly depicted by Israel’s prime minister as not representing government policies?
But the problems of Israel’s diplomats run deeper than wages or Lieberman’s undiplomatic style. Their main problem is their government’s policies. They represent a prime minister who says he wants to make peace, but his actions don’t match his words.
Last week, addressing some 170 of Israel’s leading diplomats, with TV cameras rolling, Lieberman threw a jab at Netanyahu by suggesting that the Prime Minister’s rhetorical acceptance of President Obama’s goal of a framework agreement with the Palestinians within a year was delusional. “Even if we offer Tel Aviv to the Palestinians and a withdrawal to the 1948 borders, they would find a reason why not to sign a peace agreement,” Lieberman said.
Lieberman’s crude statement is, of course, wrong. Israel’s Palestinian interlocutors have repeatedly said, and demonstrated, that they are negotiating with Israel for a state in the West Bank and Gaza only.
But Lieberman, in his bull-in-a-china-shop fashion, did perform a service to the truth. He said what people in Netanyahu’s inner circle apparently think. Netanyahu’s national security advisor Uzi Arad publicly said more than once that a peace agreement with the Palestinians in the foreseeable future is impossible. According to Israeli press reports, this is also Netanyahu’s personal conviction. That could explain why Netanyahu talks about peace and a two-state solution but does so little to advance this cause.
Two days after Lieberman’s speech, Netanyahu gave a rare interview to an Israeli television channel. But instead of slamming his defiant foreign minister, Netanyahu spoke out of both sides of his mouth. He made no real promise of a bold diplomatic breakthrough.
Israelis deserve better. They deserve a prime minister who leads toward a peace deal with the Palestinians and the Arab world. They deserve a leader who would tell them not only that a peace deal is within reach but that it is imperative, a leader who would ask them for support to make such a deal possible.
If he acts like a leader, Netanyahu will deny Lieberman the ability to fill the policy void. He will also allow Israelis – whether professional diplomats or ordinary citizens – to proudly represent their country worldwide and reverse Israel’s increasing international isolation.
Supporters of Israel’s largest peace movement, Peace Now, are insistently demanding of Netanyahu real leadership toward peace. American friends of Israel can help by echoing that demand in the US and by urging the Obama administration to redouble its efforts to bring peace to Israel and her neighbors.