Many a Mideast observer has noted that, when it comes to engaging the United States, the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu seems not-too-keen on sending its top diplomat. That role sometimes falls to perennial Washington favorite President Shimon Peres, or Defense Minister Ehud Barak. But on Friday night, in the basement ballroom of the Willard Hotel at the Brookings Institute's Saban Forum, Barak stayed in his seat at table three while his colleague from the Foreign Ministry—Avigdor Lieberman—took center stage.
Was this as a rehabilitation of a man best known for his rambunctious disdain for Arabs, particularly Palestinians? Lieberman's significance in the Israeli body politic recently hit new heights when his Yisrael Beiteinu party merged with the historic right-wing powerhouse Likud—a sign of growing radicalization in the ruling party, and in Israel. The country's challenges abound; its isolation on stark display at the U.N. last week, with the U.S. remaining Israel's almost-sole defender at the world body. Though the conference schedule was likely arranged well before the vote, maybe Netanyahu was telling Washington what they've won.
"I agree with you: I am a very bad guy and we have a very right, radical government," Lieberman half-joked to his interlocutor, NPR's Robert Siegel. I had cancelled on a friend's shabbat dinner in Washington to attend, and instead my only brush with religion was a joke from the controversial politician: "The first mistake was when Moses brought us to the Middle East instead of Benelux." The audience chuckled.
There were many jokes, and much guffawing. Was it unpalatable for Washington's elite to yuck it up with a man widely regarded as racist? Not on Friday night. Little mention was made of his previously-stated views, most notably his advocacy for a shocking policy of redrawing borders to transfer some Israelis on the basis of their ethnicity, thereby stripping these Palestinians of their citizenship. Washington, in one of its rare public sit-downs with Lieberman, seemed not to care. There was no accounting for the notion, nor for the anti-democratic laws pushed by his party. No one read any of Lieberman's old quotes back to him.
Though Siegel wrangled Lieberman back to the Palestinian issue in the firm but polite style of a radio newsman, the setting didn't have a journalistic bent. Nor, despite being hosted under the auspices of a think-tank, did the evening revolve around scholarship. Lieberman never brought up his many controversial views, and few of them were directly addressed in questions. Make no mistake: though Hillary Clinton would be honored later, this was Washington fêting Avigdor Lieberman. And he responded in kind, smiling, keeping (mostly) away from controversies, and making mild-mannered pleas for the audience to understand his world view. “Everyone wanted me to be politically correct,” he said at the outset. “I’ll do my best.”
His rotund frame leaning forward in his chair and big, blue-grey eyes beaming out at the crowd, Lieberman held forth in his thick Russian accent. "You must understand that this construction in the settlements today is part of our security," said Lieberman, himself a resident of the West Bank, on the day Israel announced expanded construction outside Jerusalem that could harm any remaining prospect for a two-state deal. "Settlements, it's not an obstacle to peace," he affirmed. The real problem was Palestinian "unemployment": "First of all, security, second prosperity. Then as a result from security and prosperity, we will achieve peace," he said. "If they will achieve their GDP of $10,000, we will achieve peace." It fell to the Egyptian Ambassador to the U.S. Mohamed Tawfiq to point out during question time with the audience that the occupation's "stranglehold" suffocates the Palestinian economy.
The other questions, however, fit the non-confrontational mood of the evening. Haim Saban himself, the Israeli-American businessman and Democratic Party mega-donor who underwrites the whole shebang, thanked Yvet—referring to Lieberman not with the honorifics reserved for a foreign minister, but by the diplomat's Moldovan birth-name. Peace-processor Dennis Ross led off his question with a disclaimer: "This is not a hard one." Then Tawfiq gave his rambling defense of Egypt's efforts to overcome its own poverty and finally, cajoled by Siegel, asked if "economic peace" was really the answer. Lieberman said the Israelis had tried to make peace with the Palestinians many times, and urged Tawfiq to ask Dennis Ross about it.