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Singing a New Tune in US-Israeli Relations

Omri Nahmias, Washington, D.C.

Avigdor Lieberman Arrives and Leaves Washington with a Smile

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

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GOOD CONNECTION Chemistry was strong between the Israeli defense minister and all the American officials he met, including Mattis, Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster (Photos: AFP/Imagebank)

Avigdor Lieberman has reason to be cheerful. It wasn’t just the warm welcome he received in Washington during a week of meetings with top Trump administration officials. It was the tone that mattered.

Lieberman was generally mum with the press, but a top aide who traveled with him summed it up: “If formerly we had tactical understandings and strategic disagreements with the Obama administration, now we have replaced that with strategic understandings and tactical disagreements.”

On the strategic level, Israel and the US now see eye-to-eye on the threat Iran poses to the Middle East and the flaws of the nuclear agreement concluded under Obama. Tactically, the sides differ over expanding Israeli construction in Judea and Samaria.

That issue clouded Lieberman’s meeting with Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who in his previous job as head of US forces in the Middle East, remarked that the settlements complicate his task of military coordination with the Arab states.

A few days before his meeting with Mattis, Lieberman warned the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that the Netanyahu government received a clear message from the Trump administration that imposing sovereignty would lead to a crisis with the American administration. Initially, political analysts thought this was Lieberman’s effort to curry favor with Mattis in advance of their meeting. But a source close to Lieberman now says the warning was aimed at showing the Netanyahu government that the US did not concur with calls by Likud deputy coalition chairman Miki Zohar for a one-state plan that denied voting rights to Palestinians.

A Lieberman aide said the chemistry was strong between the Israeli defense minister and all the American officials he met, including Mattis, Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster.

“They found a common language,” said the aide. “This is a very committed administration, each one of them. Their intentions are good, there is real desire to see that Israel’s needs are met, and Mattis, in particular, has an in-depth understanding of the Middle East.”

Despite grounds for satisfaction, the hard work remains on most multilateral issues.

In his meeting with Pence, Lieberman told him that recent Iranian ballistic missile tests — which are prohibited by the nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration — show that agreements with Tehran aren’t worth much. He added that he hoped the next meeting between the two would be held at the US embassy in Jerusalem.

There are other points of contention to iron out. Despite election rhetoric, to date the Trump administration is showing less flexibility on settlement building than Israel might have hoped. Press briefings during the week by State Department spokesman Mark Toner and White House spokesman Sean Spicer shed no new light on Trump’s evolving position on settlements. Both said the administration’s policies are still being formulated.

Toner also appeared to walk back the US threat to quit the UN Human Rights Council if the body continues to gang up on Israel. “We are there. We are part of the process, and are working hard. We are around the table and working on issues. We are committed to human rights,” Toner said.

Avigdor Lieberman: “If formerly, we had tactical understandings and strategic disagreements with the Obama administration, now we have replaced that with strategic understandings and tactical disagreements”

Toner did clarify that the State Department will continue to take a central role in formulating the policy regarding the peace process, despite reports in the US media that the State Department was in disarray, and that President Trump was not moving to fill vacant positions because he planned to hold US foreign policy cards close to his vest. 

From that point of view, Lieberman tried in his first meeting with Tillerson to influence the developing foreign policy of the new administration. Lieberman told Tillerson that the settlements are not an obstacle to peace. He said they did not prevent peace agreements with Egypt and with Jordan, and are not an obstacle to an agreement with the Palestinians.

He noted that Israel’s withdrawal from 21 thriving communities in Gaza did not lead to peace, but rather to rocket fire on Israel. Regretfully, he added, there are entities in the international community that exploit the settlements and use them as an excuse to incite against Israel, even though the Palestinians are the party that carries out terror attacks and promotes incitement to violence. 

Lieberman also asked Secretary Tillerson to reevaluate the American policy regarding the UN Human Rights Council and the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine (UNRWA).

Lieberman and others contend the UNHRC exists almost solely to criticize Israel. Some 60% of its resolutions target the Jewish state while serious human rights violators like Iran, North Korea, and Syria are virtually ignored. In their meeting, Lieberman pressed Tillerson to assess quitting the Council and suspending US funding for it. He also urged Tillerson to reevaluate US funding to UNRWA, the agency set up by the United Nations to aid Palestinian refugees after 1948.

Israel has long contended that the agency prolongs the Middle East conflict by keeping Palestinians in refugee camps and extending refugee status to descendants. Asked about Tillerson’s reply, a source close to Lieberman said: “We don’t customarily quote the other side of the conversation.”

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