Not on the same page

One can’t help but wonder: What would former Israeli Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon or Yitzhak Rabin have done if their foreign ministers had delivered jaw-dropping speeches to the U.N. General Assembly contradicting their policies on peacemaking with the Palestinians, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s did this week?

Netanyahu ostensibly is seeking a comprehensive peace agreement with the Palestinians within a year through U.S.-brokered negotiations. His foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, a West Bank settler who heads the ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) party, let the world body know he disagrees with the approach. He doesn’t buy the “land for peace” swap at the heart of negotiations and thinks it would be better to simply trade land or redraw the border so that most Israelis in the West Bank end up inside Israel and many Palestinian citizens of Israel end up, well, on the other side. Second, he says, “emotional problems” make a final deal impossible now, so he prefers an intermediate agreement implemented over decades.

Netanyahu and Lieberman are part of a coalition government that supposedly shares a vision of Israel’s future. But Netanyahu’s response when Lieberman went off the rails was to plead ignorance. Lieberman’s speech hadn’t been cleared with the prime minister, his office said, and Netanyahu is the one heading negotiations, which take place at the negotiating table and nowhere else. What the prime minister didn’t do is order Lieberman to get in line or get out, which would seem to be the obvious response to such insubordination. As a result, Netanyahu looks either weak (something Sharon and Rabin wouldn’t have countenanced) or insincere about peacemaking.

Lieberman’s party is the second-largest member of the coalition, and its seats in the Knesset are needed to keep the current government in power. In part to keep Yisrael Beiteinu happy, Netanyahu has refused to extend a freeze on West Bank settlement construction, while simultaneously appealing to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas not to walk away from the negotiations. This undermines Palestinian faith in the talks and weakens Abbas as well. The Obama administration reportedly has offered security guarantees and military hardware in exchange for another two-month moratorium. So far they have been rejected in deference to so-called political realities.

Netanyahu is clearly under pressure to appease his coalition partners. But what is the value of holding together a coalition government that isn’t committed to peacemaking, which, after all, must be the priority for Israel, the rest of the region and the world? If Netanyahu’s partners don’t agree with him on how to make peace, perhaps it’s time to get new partners.