Engel Confident Israel’s Government Doesn’t Mean It

Last month, both defenders and critics of Israel predicted that a new hard-line coalition government in Israel would prompt a more vigorous political debate about Israeli policies here in the United States.

At the time, some supporters of Israel argued that an Israeli government led by Benjamin Netanyahu, an opponent of a two-state solution, would not be nearly as extreme as many peace advocates feared.

That argument has gotten much tougher to make since Netanyahu's administration took power this week.  

On March 31, the day Netanyahu took office, The Atlantic ran an interview in which the new prime minister asserted that Israel would attack Iran if Barack Obama failed to persuade it not to seek nuclear weapons.  

"You don't want a messianic apocalyptic cult controlling atomic bombs," he told Jeffrey Goldberg. "When the wide-eyed believer gets hold of the reins of power and the weapons of mass death, then the entire world should start worrying, and that is what is happening in Iran."

The next day, On April 1, the New York Times ran a story reporting a "belligerent" speech by ultranationalist Avigdor Lieberman on his first day as Israel's foreign minister, in which he said, "Those who wish for peace should prepare for war."  

Representative Eliot Engel of New York, one of the House's most dependable Israel defenders, strongly upheld the right of Israel's ministers to say whatever they wanted, regardless of international criticism, and added that they also should be unencumbered in the pursuit of any policy that they considered in their country's best national interest.

That said, he was hopeful Netanyahu and Lieberman didn't exactly mean what they were saying, and that the harsh rhetoric from the new government was less a reflection of official policy than of the residue of campaign bluster and was a result of "Lieberman and Netanyahu playing to their bases."

"I think they were elected by some people who take a harder approach to this conflict and I think that they are attempting to tell their supporters, 'Don't worry, it's still the old me,'" Engel added.

"I believe that once they buckle down and once there is give-and-take and the United States is involved, I don't believe that Lieberman and Netanyahu and whoever else is there is going to deliberately provoke the United States, because Israel understands that the United States is Israel's only true friend and ally and they can't afford to be in a position to poke a finger in the eye of the United States," he said.

As for Lieberman's maiden remarks as the face of Israel abroad, Engel said he expected less bellicosity in the future.

"I believe as the days and weeks and months go on, you are not going to see Lieberman making statements every day or every week. I don't know the man, I haven't met the man, but I don't believe that will continue," said Engel. "Maybe some of it is Lieberman is inexperienced in this kind of diplomacy in his role, that may be a problem down the line. I don't know. Maybe it will be, maybe it won't be. But I just don't think that this administration is going to be a narrow, right-wing, rejectionist, reactionary administration. I really don't believe it."

Asked if he thought Lieberman's comments were constructive, he said, "Is it helpful? That's not for me to judge," but later added, "It's not something I would have said."  


Engel Confident Israel’s Government Doesn’t Mean It