Avigdor Lieberman’s unanimous acquittal by a Jerusalem court on charges of fraud and breach of trust, Wednesday, Nov. 6 – and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s instantaneous welcome of his ally’s return to government – dovetail neatly with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement of talks with the Israeli prime minister in Moscow on Nov. 20.
Lieberman was quickly invited to be sworn in again to this old post of foreign minister from which he stepped down in January after he was indicted.
Russian-speaking Lieberman, who was born in Moldavia, has friendly personal ties Putin. It will be interesting to see whether Netanyahu asks the restored right-of-center foreign minister to accompany him on his visit to Moscow for a meeting which may be of pivotal importance in the rapidly changing international balance in the Middle East
The hard-line politician’s return to the political scene with added clout will no doubt affect the internal balance of the Netanyahu government coalition and Israeli politics at large.
If he decides to take him to Moscow, Netanyahu will be sending three signals:
1. He may be tapping him as next Likud leader. Netanyahu and Lieberman merged the parliamentary lists of their parties, Likud and Yisrael Beitenu, running them as a unified list in the last general election in January. For Lieberman to succeed him, the prime minister would have to expand this merger into a full amalgamation of the two parties and overcome resistance in both to this step.
2. Unlike Netanyahu, Lieberman always opposed exercising a military option against Iran’s nuclear program and favored alternative measures. If he is invited to accompany the prime minister to Moscow, it would indicate that Netanyahu is open to discourse on non-military ways for integrating Israel in the US-Russian strategy for dealing with that program as well as the Syrian war.
As long as the former foreign minister was out of action, Netanyahu acted out the role of lone knight in shining armor ready to take on the whole world in order to disarm a nuclear Iran. A partnership with Lieberman would put an end to that posture.
3. The economic aspect of a tie-in between Jerusalem and Moscow has been overlooked by Israeli spokesmen and media in the hue and cry over partisan politics. However, Moscow has long been angling for a share in the export facilities of Leviathan, Israel’s largest offshore natural gas well, in particular a contract for the pipeline to be laid to Europe.
For Putin this is a major objective against which Netanyahu has resolutely dug in his heels. Lieberman was more amenable to a Russian stake in Israel’s energy industry. With the rapid expansion of Russian footholds across the Middle East, this could no be an ace up Israel’s sleeve. The new-old foreign minister is well-placed to act as broker in such a bargain.
His return to the cabinet is bad news for US Secretary of State John Kerry’s deeply-committed effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a negotiated final-status accord. Kerry was not exactly happy when Netanyahu interrupted their conversation in Jerusalem Wednesday to congratulate Lieberman on his acquittal and welcome him back to the cabinet.
As foreign minister, Lieberman argued outspokenly against a lasting peace agreement with the Palestinians, arguing that was unattainable at this time and pushing for interim accords on specific issues.
debkafile examined the implications of the forthcoming Netanyahu-Putin talks in Moscow in an exclusive report Tuesday. Click here to read it.