January 21, 2011

Israel's foreign minister can't get a break

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is learning that having lots of seats in the Knesset does not guarantee power within the coalition government. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu managed to keep Ehud Barak in the desirable post of Defense Minister, even though Barak's new party, Atzmaut, only has five seats -- and they've even gained a second portfolio. What's more, the ruins of the Labor Party -- which Barak had led into the coalition nearly two years ago and cast aside this week -- can no longer claim a seat at the government table, nor can it mount any credible opposition to Netanyahu.

Lieberman's management style and blunt diplomacy have drawn criticisms from the career foreign service. A snowballing labor dispute over the Foreign Ministry's embarrassingly low wages has compounded the equally low staff morale. The resulting paralysis of Israel's diplomatic machinery hurts Lieberman, especially given his personal stake in the Russian President's visit that had to be canceled due to the strike.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu is able to deal directly with foreign leaders, using his own loyal staff -- even if the strike is resolved, the Prime Minister's Office will end up with increased control over foreign policy (one of Netanyahu's perennial objectives).

Since the foreign minister has been conspicuously absent from most Palestinian-related diplomacy and U.S.-Israel relations, he made extensive visits to Africa and Latin America. Recent weeks have seen a snowballing of Latin American governments lining up to recognize Palestinian statehood, so by default Lieberman will be blamed for one of Israel's biggest diplomatic catastrophes (certainly as understood by right-wing Israelis) in years. Because of his lack of popularity with the Ministry staff, he will also be blamed for the strike, which has put Israeli diplomats out of commission just when they are needed most.

Lieberman and his right-wing party, Yisrael Beiteinu, will most likely remain in the Netanyahu government, and Netanyahu certainly needs those votes in Knesset. And whether one agrees with Avigdor Lieberman or not, he may be the most ideologically principled member of that government. But his influence and effectiveness will continue to be limited by circumstance and the political ambitions of others.

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