Avigdor vs. Abbas

For Lieberman, It’s Personal

11.06.12 8:15 PM ET

As senior Israeli ministers meet to consider a response to the Palestinian Authority’s bid to upgrade its U.N. status to non-member observer state, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman continues to threaten the P.A. with collapse as punishment. It’s tempting to think this is electoral politics, but it’s much more personal for Lieberman.

It’s likely that in the aftermath of the decision to run his party, Yisrael Beiteinu, on a joint ticket with Likud, Lieberman is playing for the far right vote, after some contended that joining with Likud is an unfortunate moderation. He might also be reassuring Likud’s religious Zionist voters who are scared off by the staunchly secular Yisrael Beiteinu: he shares their skepticism of the peace process.

Mostly, though, Lieberman has long had it in for the PA, and for Mahmoud Abbas in particular, whom he seems to genuinely dislike. In the past he’s directly blamed Abbas for the failures of the peace process, and last year he argued for withholding critical tax revenues from the PA because of its effort to reconcile with Hamas. He sees the PA as a threat to his views on how to unilaterally resolve the peace process—which is to maintain as many of the settlements as possible (he views “illegal outposts” like Migron as legitimate settlements to be held on to).

There is also genuine fear among Lieberman and other ministers in the government that if the PA is successful at the U.N., it will be the first real step toward the formal delegitimization of Israel and/or a weakening of its negotiating position.

More worrying is that Lieberman feels emboldened by his deal with Likud. Immediately after the announcement, analysts and officials in Likud proclaimed Lieberman’s position as heir apparent to Benjamin Netanyahu. And despite his well-known ambitions—which would entail his swallowing up of Likud—Likud members overwhelmingly approved the arrangement. His status is therefore stronger among the ministers, some of whom might have to serve with him again in a post-January Likud Beiteinu government. He can push his long-held agenda regarding the PA forward with more credibility and support now.

There are plenty of reasons why destroying the PA is a short sighted policy. But if the PA presses forward with its effort at the U.N., we can expect Lieberman to push even harder for punitive measures against both Abbas and the PA. In the event, it’s likely we’ll see both restrained from the ability to govern effectively, or maintain relations with other organizations and governments—similar to the way Ariel Sharon boxed Yasser Arafat in.

The date for the official request at the U.N. is fast approaching. It’s not clear yet if the Americans and the Europeans will be able to stave off the effort (assuming they want to). It’s still possible Lieberman’s fury will be contained by Netanyahu, or that Abbas’s success won’t be the game-changer Israel think it’ll be. But, at this moment, it’s not looking good for the PA.