Why Israel's Foreign Minister Is Absent From Talks

The halls of Jerusalem's foreign ministry are eerily quiet this week, despite one of the highest-profile diplomatic confabs in recent years. On Sunday, President Barack Obama's Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, showed up in the region for an intense round of talks on settlements. The next day, Defense Secretary Robert Gates flew into town for a session on Iran. National-security adviser Jim Jones is expected in the Holy Land on Wednesday. The one conspicuous absence amid all the high-level diplomacy: Israel's controversial chief diplomat himself, Avigdor Lieberman.

The Israeli foreign minister is enjoying a 10-day tour of Latin America, including stops in Rio, Lima, and Bogotá. Officially, his mission is said to be a long-scheduled effort to strengthen ties with South America. Unofficially, Israeli wags suspect, his mission is to stay out of the way. The foreign minister, who is considered an embarrassing loose cannon by large swaths of the Israeli public, has never been taken particularly seriously in diplomatic circles. Western officials complain that his hard-line policy proposals, which include transferring some Arab Israeli communities to Palestinian control, undermine Arab-Israeli coexistence.

It is widely understood that his selection was a political calculation on the part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who desperately needs the support of Lieberman's right-wing party to stay in power. Still, even some onetime believers in Lieberman's potential are astounded by the speed at which he has been marginalized. Last month, French President Nicolas Sarkozy reportedly warned Netanyahu to ditch Lieberman ("You must get rid of that man," the French president is said to have scolded). A recent headline in the lefty Israeli daily Haaretz blared LIEBERMAN HAS BECOME IRRELEVANT.

Some of the wounds are self-inflicted. The foreign minister essentially recused himself from the highest-profile negotiations between the U.S. and Israel: the battle over the settlements. Lieberman lives in the West Bank settlement of Nokdim and insists that it would be inappropriate for him to be negotiating with Mitchell over the fate of the Judean hills. "There's a conflict of interest here," he told Ynet News. "I wouldn't want to be accused of thwarting negotiations." Nor is he much use in regional diplomacy, considering his suggestion last fall that Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak could "go to hell." When Netanyahu needed to dispatch an envoy to Cairo last month, he felt more comfortable sending dovish President Shimon Peres instead.

Still, it would be a mistake to blame every foreign-policy failure on Lieberman. The 51-year-old former nightclub bouncer makes an easy target, but Netanyahu's own vision for engaging the region is itself anemic. On the Palestinian track, he insists that long-term economic development in the West Bank must precede any peace deal—a formula for indefinite stagnation. On Iran, Bibi's diplomats are publicly supportive of cautious engagement, but they're also eager to pin the U.S. down to a specific deadline by which the Islamic Republic must respond to the Obama administration's overtures. Even Syria—which Netanyahu himself courted through secret channels during his last term in office—seems like an unlikely quarry this time around, at least in the short term. Lieberman's deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, says he "welcomes" the recent American overtures to Syria, adding that such talks are "worth trying." Yet in the next breath he derides the state as an "Iranian Trojan horse." Indirect negotiations are useless, Ayalon insists: "The last exercise with Turkey was a resounding failure."

To Lieberman's team, completely halting "natural growth" in West Bank-settlement blocs seems like even more of a long shot. On Tuesday, in Lieberman's absence, both Netanyahu and Mitchell emerged from their meetings claiming that good progress had been made in the talks. Still, Lieberman's minions view the American goal of a total moratorium on settlement construction as unrealistic. "I don't think it serves anybody to isolate [the settlement issue] and to give it such a high profile," Ayalon says. At the end of the day, the diplomat insists, the U.S. will have no choice but to allow some form of continued building within the existing blocs around Jerusalem.

In the meantime, Lieberman may seem hopelessly out of the loop—a lame duck after only a few months in office. Yet in the Levant, it is worth remembering that Middle East peace initiatives have a reliable way of falling apart. The careers of countless would-be statesmen have collapsed with the wreckage. A politician as controversial as Lieberman would likely make a tempting fall guy for Netanyahu once things get ugly. For the foreign minister, there may be no safer place to be at the moment than in Rio.