Arab-bashing Israeli politician’s ascent

JERUSALEM (IPS) - And then there were four.

Just days until Israel’s general election, the three front-running parties have been joined by an anti-establishment surge from the far right that has the Yisrael Beiteinu party vying for a major role in the next government.

Led by Avigdor Lieberman, Yisrael Beiteinu has actually overtaken the once powerful Labor party of Ehud Barak and is fast closing the gap on the top two contenders, Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud, which opinion polls give 26-29 seats compared to 24-27 seats for Tzipi Livni’s center-right Kadima. There are 120 seats in the Knesset, so a viable coalition will need to be composed of at least three and, very possibly, more parties, all but Labor on the right of the political spectrum.

Lieberman’s party relies heavily on the immigrant vote of Russian-speaking Israelis (around 20 percent of the 5.3 million voters). It sprang a major surprise already three years ago in winning 11 seats in its first venture into national politics. Its appeal is spreading. Since the Gaza war it’s made such giant strides that it’s mooted to emerge with as many as 20 seats and become the pivot in any coalition-building process.

Yisrael Beiteinu is unabashedly Arab bashing. Billboards around the country parade the most provocative slogan of the campaign — a naked racist attack on Israel’s Arab citizens: “No Loyalty No Citizenship,” a thinly veiled reference to widespread Arab opposition to the war.

Lieberman has also advocated the “transfer” of some Palestinian citizens of Israeli towns close to the West Bank to any future Palestinian state. He himself lives in a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank. “He’s the kind of leader we’ve been waiting for, he knows how to talk to Arabs in their own language, the language of force,” said one woman when Lieberman took his talk-tough message to villages close to the Gaza border.

The Lieberman rush is alarming Palestinian citizens of Israel (also around 20 percent of the electorate, though turned off by the way their Jewish compatriots have turned on them, as many as half may be discouraged from voting at all). Ghazal Abu Raya is an intellectual and an ardent advocate of Arab-Jewish coexistence from the Galilee town of Sakhnin, a fulcrum of both Palestinian nationalist sentiment and demands for full acceptance of Arab citizens: “The Lieberman phenomenon is no regular protest vote — his anti-Arab, anti-coexistence message has crept into mainstream Jewish thinking. It looks awfully like becoming a fixture in Israeli politics and society. It’s a real threat to our democracy.”

There are few parallel concerns among Jewish voters or politicians. In fact, the opposite — Lieberman is proving the catharsis of the campaign. Even though the attorney-general says serious charges of money laundering are pending and might require legal action against him in the not-distant future, perversely, this has merely boosted the popularity of the brash Moldovan-born Yisrael Beiteinu leader.

To the extent that both front-runners have been forced to change their strategy, each, in the capacity of would-be winner, is offering Lieberman a post-election alliance. Kadima, which is running on a “clean government” platform, has expressed no reluctance to embrace Yisrael Beiteinu, while Netanyahu went further still.

At an election rally Wednesday night he appealed directly to Russian voters: “If you vote for another party, the Likud will be weakened, but if you vote for Likud I will be prime minister and I’ll make Lieberman an important minister in my cabinet and build a strong government. My first approach will be to unite the national camp.”

National unity is a vote-gathering watchword in this contest. Whatever form that “national government” assumes, and whoever governs it, it has already been crowned by Israeli pundits as a government that will crystallize around a rightist ideological platform. The outstanding question is whether it will also automatically — as seems likely — adopt firm hard right-wing policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians and in terms of prospects for would-be United States-led peace initiatives.

Netanyahu has said bluntly that he won’t be “held hostage” by “concessions” which the outgoing prime minister Ehud Olmert may have made in talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose term officially expired on 9 January, nor would he implement long-standing promises by the last two governments to dismantle “illegal” settlement outposts.

There is, however, another pivot-in-waiting for the post-election coalition-building phase. In his congratulatory call to the 10 February winner, US President Barack Obama is expected to make it plain that the US doesn’t mean to sit on the sidelines much longer.

Says top political analyst David Landau, former chief-editor of Haaretz: “Everything points to a possible set-to between Washington and Jerusalem. It’s not, though, beyond the realm of the possible that Netanyahu understands only too well the lay of the international land — especially the need for a viable containment policy of Iran linked to a pro-peace drive with the Palestinians and the Arab world. For all the current campaign rhetoric and tactical maneuverings, the signal will come from the kind of coalition he eventually chooses.” Given public sentiment, Israel is definitely set to put in power a right-wing coalition. Whether this government opts categorically for out-and-out right-wing policies remains a slightly more open question.

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