Tuesday 17 March 2009


: The Rise of Avigdor Lieberman
by Ben Lynfield

When the Galilee town of Sakhnin's predominantly Arab soccer team was awarded the Israel Cup in 2004, Avigdor Lieberman was not in the mood to bestow congratulations. Instead, Lieberman, head of the Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Is Our Home) party, implied in a newspaper interview that the team, Hapoel Bnei Sakhnin, would one day be expelled from Israel to the West Bank. "Sakhnin will not play in the Israeli league and will represent the other [Palestinian] league. They may even call it Hapoel Shechem [Nablus]," Lieberman joked.

Far from his nakedly anti-Arab approach disqualifying him from the political mainstream, Lieberman is today its rising star. He was welcomed into the ruling coalition in October as "minister for strategic threats" and is now the main ally and crutch of faltering Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

An immigrant from the former Soviet Union who lives in the illegal West Bank settlement of Nokdim, Lieberman is stoking anti-Arab sentiment and exploiting insecurity and disillusionment after the fiasco of last summer's Lebanon war. Top office, or at least the Defense Ministry, is a realistic goal for Lieberman, a shrewd political tactician who helped Benjamin Netanyahu gain election as Prime Minister in 1996 and served in Ariel Sharon's Cabinet. "If elections were held now, based on the polls, he could presumably be either prime minister or demand any other ministry he wanted," says Yossi Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.

Before politics, Lieberman worked as a bar bouncer. The majority of the settlers in the West Bank are arrogant, rude, and thoroughly unpleasant if you go by the way they treat the Palestinians. There is documentation, more than one can imagine, proving this. They are, in many cases, the lunatic fringe of Judaism and uncontrollable.

If Lieberman's pronouncements are to be taken seriously ~ and there is no obvious reason they should not be ~ a Lieberman government would exclude some Arab citizens from Israel, would expel others who refuse to sign a loyalty-to-Zionism oath, would turn Gaza into Grozny and would execute Arab members of the Knesset who talk to Hamas or mark Israel Independence Day as the anniversary of the displacement of the Palestinians in 1948.

Many Israelis ~ and many Americans ~ are sleeping through the rise of Lieberman. Others are through their actions facilitating the ascendancy of fascist ideas in Israel. Lieberman is more than kosher as far as Washington is concerned. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice welcomed him at the State Department on December 11, a day after he was featured at a forum, sponsored by the Brookings Institution's Saban Center, that also included Bill Clinton, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and several other members of Congress.

There have been voices of alarm inside Israel. The daily Ha'aretz has warned that the appointment of the "unrestrained and irresponsible" Lieberman "constitutes a strategic threat in its own right," and Hebrew University political scientist Ze'ev Sternhell says, "Lieberman is perhaps the most dangerous politician in the history of the State of Israel." Sternhell believes Lieberman poses a greater threat to democracy than previous far-right politicians because Lieberman has not been confined to the margins and because "he has a genuine social power base among the Russian immigrants and in the lower middle class among people who think the Knesset and Supreme Court have too much power."

Like Hamas, which swept the Palestinian elections last January, Lieberman, though striving for power through the ballot box, believes democracy is at best a secondary value. In a September interview he said: "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."

Lieberman has no tolerance for pluralism. In one of his first pronouncements as minister, he called for making Israel "as much as possible" a homogeneous Jewish state. His party's platform includes a plan under which some Arab areas of Israel would be transferred to the Palestinian Authority, albeit without consulting the Arab citizens. "In exchange" Israel would annex large West Bank settlements. In his book My Truth, Lieberman argues that the Arab minority poses the greatest threat to Israel's future. Ridding Israel of Arabs is necessary because they are disloyal, he says. Lieberman's platform could be used to disenfranchise the Arab minority, now one-fifth of the population, or pave the way for its expulsion.

Disenfranchising Arab citizens, whose votes are crucial to the Israeli left wing, would have the advantage of keeping the right wing in power for the foreseeable future. In some ways this would be a radical departure from a tradition of universal suffrage as old as the state itself. At the same time, however, the idea of stripping Arabs of the vote draws on concepts well rooted in the discourse of both the Israeli right and the left. In recent years Ariel Sharon advanced the idea of a "separation," in which Israel would solve the conflict with the Palestinians without any Palestinian input and by erecting a wall inside occupied territory that keeps West Bank Arabs out. The left wing, for its part, has for many years used the phrase "demographic problem" to describe Arabs.

Along with Netanyahu, Lieberman is the prime beneficiary of the sea change in Israeli politics after the Lebanon war. Israel's leaders rushed into the conflict without weighing alternatives and showed a disregard for the lives of Lebanese civilians and even their own soldiers. Most Israelis cannot forgive Olmert or the hapless Defense Minister Amir Peretz--who just a year ago was the great new progressive hope of the Labor Party--for their inept handling of the campaign. In political terms, the major casualty of the war was Olmert's "convergence" plan to unilaterally withdraw from isolated West Bank settlements while annexing large settlement blocs. Olmert now has a void instead of an agenda. The entire power structure has been discredited ~ but not Lieberman, who was not associated with the Lebanon debacle and who unabashedly adheres to the same stances he held in opposition.

With no background in security and a record of threats against other countries, Lieberman is an unlikely choice for handling Israel's strategic challenges, including how to deal with Iran, or for joining in decisions about Israel's nuclear arsenal. But for Olmert, it seems, Israeli security comes second to political expediency. "What totally disgusts me is the fact that Olmert saw fit to create a security ministry for a man who is a security liability for Israel. He is prepared to use Israeli security as a political goodie," says the Jaffee Center's Alpher.

Democracy is also for sale in Olmert's Israel. Legislation Lieberman has prepared, for which Olmert mustered Cabinet approval, would transfer many of the Knesset's powers to the prime minister ~ powers that will be in Lieberman's hands if he is elected. The plan does away with no-confidence votes, calls for direct election of the prime minister and allows the prime minister to appoint a Cabinet without Knesset approval. The prime minister would not have to wait for Cabinet or parliamentary approval to promulgate emergency regulations that could overturn existing laws. "Lieberman wants a Putin-style regime here," says Tel Aviv University political scientist Yoav Peled. "I don't think it can happen under the current government, but it's very significant, because this is the plan he will implement when he has the power. And pretty soon he will have the power."


Al Jazeeera

Benjamin Netanyahu, the designated Israeli prime minister and leader of the Likud party, has signed a coalition agreement with the Yisrael Beitenu party.

Under the deal, Avigdor Lieberman, Yisrael Beitenu's leader, would be foreign minister, Israel Radio reported on Monday.

Benjamin Netanyahu, incoming Israeli Prime Minister

The agreement is the first step towards establishing a new coalition government.

An official from Yisrael Beitenu, which takes a hawkish, nationalist line on domestic and security policies, said that after days of negotiations its representatives signed an initial agreement naming Lieberman as the incoming foreign minister.

The agreement also gives charge to Yisrael Beitenu over the ministries of internal security, infrastructure, tourism and the integration of new immigrants.

Netanyahu faces a deadline imposed by Shimon Peres, the Israeli president, to form a cabinet by April 3.

The two parties are poised to secure agreements with other parties in order to achieve a majority within Israel's 120-seat parliament.

Conservative cabinet

Netanyahu, who served as prime minister from 1996 to 1999, is likely to form a cabinet dominated by conservatives since both the Kadima and Labour party have refused to join his government.

Al Jazeera's Mike Hanna in Jerusalem said: "Seeing how the government is set up and how the US administration is beginning to position itself, combined with the demands of the Palestinians between these factors, it's very difficult to see anything but a long period of wrangling and anger as well as little progress in peace negotiations.

"The important point to note is that Yisrael Beiteinu agrees to a two-state solution, perhaps different from the kind of two-state solution that Palestinians might envisage.

"Lieberman's wants a pure Jewish state and anyone who doesn't pledge an oath of allegiance to Israel must be deported to another state alongside, which he sees as a Palestinian state," he said.

Lieberman's appointment as foreign minister raised concerns that Israel's international ties will be harmed.

Lieberman has been accused of being a racist demagogue because of his plans to require loyalty oaths from Israeli Arabs as a pre-condition for gaining citizenship.

Collision course

A narrowly based government and a prominent role for Lieberman could put Netanyahu on a collision course with the administration of Barack Obama, who has pledged to pursue an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

Yisrael Beiteinu, which won 15 seats in the 120-member parliament, wants to trade land where Israeli-Arab citizens live in exchange for illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank in any peace deal with Palestinians.

Despite the deal with Lieberman's party, Netanyahu's deputies are continuing efforts to form a broad-based coalition by winning support from Tzipi Livni, the outgoing foreign minister and Kadima leader.

Livni has demanded Netanyahu to commit to US-backed talks with Palestinians for a two-state solution, as a condition for joining any government.

She also demanded a power-sharing arrangement in exchange for joining a government alongside him.

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