June 24, 2019

Interview with Avigdor Lieberman: ‘About our PR, I completely agree, it is very, very bad’

The meteoric rise of Israel’s Russian-speaking, Moldova-born immigrant and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman may be proof, as he told an admiring Jewish National Fund (JNF) crowd in Los Angeles on Sept. 15, that Israel is more like America than even America.

Not quite a pristine Cinderella story, though, at 56, Lieberman is as notable for his political successes as for the political and media controversies that surround him.

When Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly offered Lieberman the option of switching to either the minister of defense or finance in 2012, Tzipi Livni, who used to hold Lieberman’s current post in the Foreign Ministry, was quoted by the Jerusalem Post as saying that his becoming Defense Minister would be “an existential threat to the State of Israel.”

Lieberman, 56, signed on for a second term as Foreign Minister in the coalition government led by Netanyahu’s Likud and his own Yisrael Beiteinu party. And to Livni’s chagrin, Lieberman’s political fortunes may be headed north, perhaps one day as far north as Prime Minister—at least if he can continue to emerge unscathed from the occasional scandals that involve his name (see: his off-the-record trip to Vienna last weekend to meet with businessman Martin Schlaff, as reported by Haaretz.)

The so-called “Lieberman Plan” that he proposed in 2004 would have redrawn Israeli and Palestinian borders so that many Israeli-Arabs would be included in an eventual Palestinian state—and likely lose their Israeli citizenship. In March, an internal Foreign Ministry legal brief argued that such a move would be legal if the Israeli-Arabs consented and if they did not become stateless.

In 2006, he likened Arab-Israeli Knesset members who met with Hamas to Nazi collaborators who were executed for their crimes. The Arab-Israeli collaborators, Lieberman said at the time, should meet the same fate.

Willing to speak his mind, Lieberman — as he told the Journal in an interview shortly after his address to JNF — prefers to be honest, even if it means damaging his (and thus the Israeli government’s) reputation in international media. As he admitted to the JNF crowd, somewhat surprisingly, Israel is lacking in the media relations department: “First of all, about our hasbara, about our PR, I completely agree — it is very, very bad.”

How much that has to do with his insistence on speaking his mind, well, that’s a question he addressed in the interview.

In fact, during his address, there were two points where he appeared to have fun with the monstrous role that he, and often Israel, are assigned in world opinion. Nine minutes into his 30-minute speech, when he was discussing the importance of religious education for Jewish children in the United States, three young female protestors from the left-wing group CODEPINK stood up and shouted, “What about the children in the schools in Gaza!” Security — and the crowd’s boos — quickly put an end to their interruption.

Smiling, Lieberman joked that he “was surprised that this provocation took so much time.” Perhaps he is used to anti-Israel protestors hijacking his speeches before the nine-minute mark.

Later in the address, the Foreign Minister played devil’s advocate, suggesting that even if he really were the bad guy that he is painted as, and even if politicians such as him are roadblocks to peaceful coexistence with the Palestinians, then why haven’t “nice guys” like Ehud Olmert, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Barak been able to reach peace? The answer, as Lieberman implied, is that Palestinian leaders, from Yasser Arafat to Mahmoud Abbas, aren’t interested.

In the interview, Lieberman was careful to not overly criticize Netanyahu and played down Netanyahu’s frosty relationship with the Obama Administration. When asked about Israel’s poor PR, he indicated—in a quite unsatisfactory response — that Israel has too many other budgetary concerns to allocate what’s needed for effective marketing, but countered that he feels the government did a sufficient job of justifying its Gaza operation.

An edited version of the interview follows:

Jewish Journal: Looking back on the war in Gaza, what would you like to have been done differently?

Avigdor Lieberman: They [Hamas] survived, they are in power and they continue to run the Gaza Strip. It was the third operation in the last five-and-a-half years and as long as Hamas remains in power it’s only a matter of time until we will launch the next operation because Hamas will impose on us the next operation.

JJ: Would it be different if the Palestinian Authority ran Gaza?

Lieberman: Israel never interferes in the domestic issues of any other country. It’s not our matter, it’s not our policy. Hamas fired rockets on Israel; Hamas kidnapped our teenage boys and it’s impossible to accept the reality when you have rockets on Tel Aviv or on Jerusalem or in the south of Israel. You cannot imagine rockets on L.A. or on New York. I don’t know any other country [that] would accept this reality. It’s not [a matter of] who’s in power in Gaza but [what matters is that there are] no military capabilities; no missiles; no tunnels.

JJ: If Hamas were toppled, then what?

Lieberman: It’s their choice, the choice of the people of Gaza to create the real peace or at least to create conditions of coexistence. Every country, every government — our first obligation is to provide security and safety for our citizens.

JJ: You said in your address to JNF that Israel’s PR is not good. What do you think is the reason?

Lieberman: I think it’s impossible for our budget. Because today it’s also first of all a matter of money. We devote very small money because we are facing too many challenges around the whole region — Libya, Tunisia, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Hezbollah, Hamas, [Islamic] Jihad, ISIS. Everything is burning, we are in the midst of an ocean of bloodshed and violence. We have priorities but still despite … I think that we have succeeded to explain our position. Everybody knows the reason for the last operation; everything started with the kidnapping of the three boys and their execution. Hamas started with rockets on Israel; they used the civilian population as human shields.

JJ: Does it bother you that much of the international media view you as extreme right-wing and people like you as the cause of the conflict?

Lieberman: It’s impossible to handle all the prejudiced views with people that have their vision without any background. Even if I agree [with my critics] that I am a bad guy and radical and a settler and everything, why since the Oslo agreement [has peace not been achieved with] so many “good guys” in power? Shimon Peres and Ariel Sharon and Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert … Ehud Barak was ready to divide Jerusalem and to evacuate all settlers. Sharon undertook the same process called disengagement; evacuated 21 settlements and we transferred more than 10,000 Jews — and what is the bottom line?

JJ: Do you not care that the sound bytes that you say to the media are then used around the world to basically hurt Israel’s image?

Lieberman: I don’t think so. I think that the best policy is to say the truth.

JJ: Are you concerned about the American-Israeli relationship? It has appeared to be very cold of late. Will it continue?

Lieberman: I think it’s a misunderstanding. It’s very stable. Our relations [have been] based since the first day on many, many factors. First of all we are sharing the same values and second, of course, it’s the ties between the Jewish community in Israel and [in America]; it’s strategic interest and military cooperation between the United States and Israel. At the end of the day Americans know that the ones they really can trust in all the Middle East, it’s only Israel.

JJ: Is there comfort within the Israeli government over the cooperation with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan?

Lieberman: [This is] the first time that the moderate Arab countries and leaders understand that the real threat for them is not Israel, is not Zionism and is not Jews — it’s the radical Islamic wing … What we’ve seen over the last meetings and discussions within [the] Arab League and between Arab leaders and the Western world — there are three issues. First of all it’s the Iranian threat, it’s [the] Muslim Brotherhood and [it’s] the spillover from the Syrian crisis.

JJ: Follwing Gaza do you have faith in the Prime Minister’s ability to lead the country?

Lieberman: First of all, he’s the leader and I supported him during the last election and during the coalition negotiations. I think I have a right to my opinion and of course he has a right to his opinion. He has a majority in cabinet and I respect the democratic decision. It’s impossible always to be with the majority in coalition government, especially when it’s a very complicated coalition.