By Gabriel Weinstein
When Avigdor Lieberman arrived in Israel from Moldova and began working as an airport porter he probably never imagined he would become Minister of Foreign Affairs and one of the world’s most reviled political figures. Since taking the post, Lieberman has staunchly advocated for a Loyalty Oath, which would require non-Jewish Israelis to declare their loyalty to Israel as a Jewish state on penalty of having their citizenship revoked, told the U.N. that Palestinian peace talks could take decades and insisted that Israel will not accept “any additional [settlement building] freeze – not for three months, not for a month, and not for a day.” Lieberman is part of a greater international trend, particularly in Europe, of far right politicians vaulting into the political limelight on ultra nationalist, anti-Muslim rhetorical platforms. In an American context, Lieberman’s strategies, rhetoric and ideology evoke memories of past demagogues such as Strom Thurmond and George Wallace. But the most apt comparison is with Joseph McCarthy.
McCarthy and Lieberman both burst onto the political scene by questioning the loyalty of citizens. McCarthy’s crusade against communism began in a famous address on February 9, 1950 in Wheeling, West Virginia, where he spoke of the “swiftness of the tempo of Communist victories and American defeats in the cold war” and portrayed Russia as a looming and menacing enemy. McCarthy told his audience that America’s greatest threat was not Soviet communists but American sympathizers. He warned his audience that “When a great democracy is destroyed, it will not be because of enemies from without but rather because of enemies from within.”
Like McCarthy, Lieberman has directed inflammatory rhetoric and abrasive tactics toward an isolated and ostracized minority–Israel’s Arab community. During the 2009 Knesset election campaign, Lieberman quipped he “understood Arabic” in campaign ads, suggesting that his tough stance was the only way to make progress with Arab leaders. He crafted his election campaign around promoting the loyalty oath, the first step of which has already taken form in a bill that would require new Israeli citizens to make the pledge. Baruch College Political Science Professor Dov Waxman explained in The Forward that the loyalty oath’s definition of Israel as a Jewish state “is controversial because many Arab citizens of Israel believe that as long as Israel defines itself in this manner, they are doomed to remain effectively second-class citizens.” The loyalty oath has caused furor throughout the Israeli and Jewish world. On October 20th over 1,500 Israelis marched in Jerusalem protesting the measure. Knesset Opposition leaer Tzipi Livni has voiced her displeasure stating the bill does not strengthen Israel “as a Jewish state with equality for all.”
Last week Lieberman emulated McCarthy’s suspicion of his fellow countrymen when he condemned Israeli actors who signed a petition pledging to not perform at a new cultural center in the West Bank settlement Ariel. Lieberman vowed that he would attempt to stifle future government funding for the actors.
As their tactics gained them national and international recognition, McCarthy and Lieberman both sparred with their nation’s chief executives. President Dwight Eisenhower became infuriated with McCarthy because of his allegations of communist activity in the army. McCarthy’s congressional cronies shared Eisenhower’s sentiments and issued a censure motion for his conduct. Benyamin Netanyahu has reduced Lieberman’s diplomatic role in peace talks over the past few months as Netanyahu tries to rekindle serious discussions with the Palestinians. Lieberman seethed when Trade Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer was dispatched in his stead on a diplomatic mission to Turkey in the wake of the Gaza Flotilla incident. He is also critical of Netanyahu’s attempt at renewing the Palestinian peace talks. A former Lieberman peer said in an October New York Times article that a major factor in the rift between the two was that Netanyahu’s attempts at peace undermined Lieberman’s goal of demonstrating that peace with the Palestinians is unattainable.
As the peace talks and settlement issue develop, Lieberman’s political clout may wane. Perhaps Lieberman’s antics, like McCarthy’s, will become too grating on his political peers and promote public opposition. Netanyahu’s renewed enthusiasm for Palestinian peace talks, expressed during his discussion with Hilary Clinton yesterday, coupled with the international community’s growing frustration with Lieberman suggest, that Lieberman might be heading in the direction of his polarizing predecessor.