Avigdor Lieberman: Israel's Le Pen

February, 05 2009

By Jeremy Gillick

Two years ago, Ha’aretz correspondent Lily Galili profiled the right wing Israeli politician and founder of the Yisrael Beiteinu (“Israel is our Home”) Party, Avigdor Lieberman, for Moment.

Having served as Transportation Minister under Ariel Sharon, and having subsequently been fired in 2004 for opposing the withdrawal from Gaza, Lieberman “re-emerged,” Galili wrote in early 2007, “as a strange hybrid of an Israeli version of Jean-Marie Le Pen (the infamous French extreme right-winger) and respectable statesman.” Indeed, it was recently revealed that Lieberman was at one point a member of Rabbi Meir Kahane’s Kach Party, which was banned from Israeli elections in the late 1980s for inciting racism against Arabs.

Now, with Israeli elections just days away, Lieberman and his nationalist party are poised to make huge gains. Polls indicate that Yisrael Beitenu could win as many as 16 seats in Israel’s 120-member Knesset–potentially even more than Israel’s founding left-leaning Labor Party. And Benjamin Netanyahu, whose right-wing Likud Party is expected to beat out Kadima, the centrist one, has promised to give Lieberman a prominent post if he succeeds in forming a coalition.

Lieberman hasn’t been entirely absent from government since his stint in the Sharon administration. In March of 2006, Galili explains, “When Olmert’s centrist Kadima party failed to capture a majority in the elections…and had to enter into a national coalition government with Labor, Lieberman was the big winner.” In fact “Israel Beiteinu won 11 seats and Olmert, in need of political allies, was forced to invite Lieberman to join his cabinet, inventing a new portfolio for him called ‘minister of strategic affairs.'” He resigned in early 2008 when Yisrael Beiteinu withdrew from the Kadima-led coalition.

Yes, Lieberman is very far to the right, has loose associations with figures like Kahane, and lives in Nokdim, a radical settlement situated in the Gush Etzion region in the middle of the West Bank. But what in particular is so dangerous about his views?

Galili: “For years Lieberman has been preaching that the real threat to the future of Israel comes not from the Palestinians beyond the Green Line but from the million plus within the state of Israel who are full Israeli citizens. As he once put it, ‘If we want to stop the conflict, we must separate the two peoples. The main problem is the Israeli Arabs. I think separation has to include them. I am talking about a land swap as well as a population swap. This seems brutal and sounds brutal, but there is no other solution.'”

The New Republic has a nice analysis of what Lieberman’s rise could mean for Israel’s future. “Under the catchy slogan ‘No citizenship without loyalty’ (it rhymes in Hebrew), Yisrael Beiteinu is pushing for a new law requiring all citizens to swear an ‘oath of loyalty’ to the state. Israeli-Arab citizens or others who refuse could have their citizenship stripped from them.”

And unlike most Israeli politicians and American Jews, for Lieberman, Israel’s Jewishness takes precedence over its democratic system. According to a 2006 piece in the Nation, Lieberman said in September of that year that “‘The vision I would like to see here is the entrenching of the Jewish and the Zionist state. I very much favor democracy, but when there is a contradiction between democratic and Jewish values, the Jewish and Zionist values are more important.'”

In a recent Ha’aretz editorial, “Reject Lieberman,” the editors warn that “Likud MK Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak must disassociate themselves from him [Lieberman] and his slogans, and soon. If not, the three of them will bear the full responsibility for the entrenchment of dangerous racist politics in Israel.”

It’s unlikely that the Obama administration will take a stance on Lieberman before the Israeli election takes place. If it doesn’t, it could be in for a big surprise come February 10th, and its ambitious plans to revive peace talks in the Middle East might be for naught.

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