Israel's new foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, believed he was bringing to Binyamin Netanyahu's fledgling government an important gift: a direct line to the Kremlin and connections good enough to partially counter-balance Jerusalem's over-dependence on Washington.
This was to be especially valuable at a time when the incoming Israeli government was dodging around Barack Obama's insistence on a two-state solution of the long Israel-Palestinian conflict.
Even before settling down in his Jerusalem office, the Russian-speaking minister was on the move – prematurely as it turned out. Lieberman's public dismissal of the Bush-initiated Annapolis 2007 track, embraced by the Olmert government as the main channel of Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy, was meant as a softener for Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, whom Lieberman met privately in Moscow, soon after Israel's February election, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Moscow sources reveal.
The controversial Israeli minister calculated he could buy Kremlin backing for Netanyahu's Middle East policies by offering to reroute Israel's Palestinian and Syrian negotiating tracks through Moscow instead of Washington.
According to our sources, Lieberman met Lavrov off his own bat without informing the Israeli prime minister. Had his offer been taken up, he most likely would have presented the feat to Netanyahu as a triumph. However, he failed to take into account that in Moscow, he was stepping into a hotbed of rivalries between heavyweights like American and Iran, with which he had no chance of competing.
Somewhat naively, the untried foreign minister believed that by denigrating Annapolis – synonymous in Moscow with the “Great American Hijack” of the Israel-Palestinian peace track – he would net Israel diplomatic advantages in Moscow and closer security ties.
Banking mistakenly on Moscow's Annapolis trauma
He knew that Lavrov, severely reprimanded for letting Moscow be cut out of the Annapolis proceedings two years ago, secretly aspired to wipe his record clean of the “Annapolis disgrace” by convening a rival summit in Moscow this year to assert Russia's centrality to Middle East peacemaking. Lieberman even hoped that helping Lavrov bring this off would ease Moscow away from Tehran – a major feat to present to Netanyahu.
Lieberman was encouraged to pursue his line by Moscow's approval Friday, April 10, of the first-of-its-kind Russian arms purchase from Israel of the Israeli Aviation Industry's unmanned aerial vehicles, including combat arms carrying drones.
According to Lieberman's plan, this deal was to be the introduction to more substantial commercial and financial transactions with Russia.
On March 20, DEBKA-Net-Weekly 389 reported in its lead article of March 20 the tasking assignments of the new Israeli government as being: Economy for Netanyahu, Preparation for Iran Conflict by Barak, Detente with Moscow for Lieberman.
But Israel's top diplomat jumped the gun. He decided the take upon himself the initiative for lending the new Israeli administration a more pro-Russian bent to counter its strong pro-American orientation.
Lieberman's lack of diplomatic experience and finesse led him to seize the bull by the horns at the wrong moment. The Russian minister listened carefully but did not let on that he was about to jump into bed with Israel's enemy, Iran, for a joint strategy vis-a-vis the Obama administration. (See separate article in this issue.)
Lavrov played along with his Israeli opposite number's hopes – until last weekend, when he jilted him and turned all his attention to the deal with Tehran.
In domestic political terms, Lieberman has been taken down a peg or two or more; he has been shown up as headstrong and lacking in strategic skills and foresight, after his vaunted Moscow contacts failed to come up to scratch.