Lieberman is no abnormality

It would be mistaken to think of the rise of Avigdor Lieberman as a major development or as the main source of concern for the Palestinians. (Levine/SIPA)

One can easily detect a generally superficial, and convenient, analysis of the outcomes of Israeli elections in western media outlets thus far. Indeed, the far right-wing of the Zionist continuum has strengthened its hold on the Israeli political system in the recent Israeli elections. Yet, it would be misleading to see these results as mainly the direct product of the onslaught on Gaza and the popular sentiment that followed, and to isolate them from processes that were underway years before the war. Indeed, the right-wing has been in a better position than the left within the Jewish vote since 1977, and its power has been steadily increasing since Ehud Barak destroyed the so-called Zionist left in Camp David 2000 and its aftermath.

Likewise, it would be mistaken to think of the rise of Avigdor Lieberman and his party, Yisrael Beiteinu, as a major development or as the main source of concern for the Palestinians. Focusing on Lieberman (charitably called by the Guardian a “hardliner”) distracts the discussion from the real issues to the person of one unpleasant politician who says ignominious things others are generally unwilling to say. This logic seems to suggest that the political disappearance of Lieberman will bring about a serendipitous resolution of major problems in the Middle East. Lieberman, however, only exacerbates an already existing problem, and he cannot be easily dismissed as a marginal case of excess or abnormality of the Israeli political system.

First, one needs to be reminded that among Yisrael Beiteinu’s elected members of the Knesset are men who come from the establishment, for example, a former ambassador to the US and a former senior commander in the police force.

Second, in the negotiations that followed elections day there was a wide range of agreement not only between the Likud of Benjamin Netanyahu and Lieberman, but also the Kadima party of current Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Lieberman. Both sides were trying to convince him to join their own coalition. Needless to say, both Lieberman and Kadima emerged in the last decade as an offspring of the Likud.

Third, Ehud Barak of the Labor party rejected before the elections some of his senior party members’ demand to promise not to join a coalition that would include Lieberman. Even worse, Barak claimed that Lieberman talks the talk but does not walk the walk as he never “shot anyone” thereby implying that he himself is the tough guy since he did actually kill Arabs in his past.

Fourth, Lieberman’s central idea of land swap or population swap that would include Palestinian citizens of Israel and his view of this minority as a demographic and strategic threat to the self-proclaimed Jewish state are actually not controversial among the major parties and elites in Israel. The question of Palestinian citizenship in a Jewish state started long before Lieberman emerged on the scene and used incitement against the Palestinian citizens to gain more votes. Indeed, many prominent Israeli academics and politicians have expressed support of these ideas including Ariel Sharon, Benjamin Netanyahu, Elie Yishai of the Shas party, Ephraim Sneh of Labor, journalist Dan Margalit and historian Benny Morris. To give one example, Ehud Barak said in his June 2002 interview with Benny Morris in The New York Review of Books that the Arab citizens will serve as the “spear point” of the Palestinian struggle, and that this would require changes in the rules of the “democratic game” to guarantee the “Jewishness” of the state. He also expressed support for a land swap that would include large Arab concentrations inside Israel because it makes “demographic sense.”

To give another example, on 23 January 2002 Livni urged members of the Knesset to reject an “equal protection clause” according to which equality is the right of every citizen in the state regardless of his or her nationality or religion or views. Indeed, the proposed bill was rejected and formal equality remains outside the Israeli book of laws. She also supported “settlement and allocation of land for Jews only” bills in the Knesset. Finally, she repeatedly argued that Israel will never be the national home for its Palestinian citizens, and if they have a collective aspiration they should look for it somewhere else.

Fifth, this is not the first time that Lieberman has become a cabinet minister in Israel. In fact he served as the minister of national infrastructure (2001-02), minister of transportation (2003-04), and then more recently as the minister for strategic affairs (2006-08).

Sixth, Lieberman is not the first or only outspoken proponent of expulsion of the Palestinians to serve in the government. In fact, Rehavam Ze’evi of the racist Moledet party was a minister without portfolio (1991-92), and then again as a minister of tourism (2001) in the Sharon government until he was assassinated by Palestinians, only to be replaced by Benjamin Elon of the same party and with the same views. Ze’evi was more principled in this issue than Lieberman. Notable in this context is that the Israeli legislator enacted a law to commemorate Ze’evi’s “legacy” after his assassination.

Other fascist politicians have also served in the Israeli government in recent years. Effie Eitam of the National Religious Party (HaMafdal), for instance, is another proponent of expulsion who famously called the Palestinian citizens of Israel a “ticking bomb” and a “cancer.” That did not prevent the former general from being appointed as a minister of housing (2003-04) and minister of national infrastructure (2002).

In Theodor Herzl’s novel Altneuland, published in 1902, Rabbi Dr. Geyer ran in the elections on the platform of disenfranchising the Arab citizens. The mainstream Zionists, on the one hand, and the good Arab who welcomed the Zionists, on the other hand, rejected Geyer as a troublemaker and Geyer was defeated in the elections in the novel. Lieberman currently plays the role of Rabbi Geyer with the difference that he actually won in the elections and he is a kingmaker. This state of affairs seems to have misled many of the commentators who are focused on the danger that the emergence of Lieberman poses. That would be tantamount to focusing on Rabbi Geyer and forgetting Herzl and the Zionist project itself which entailed not only the displacement of the Palestinian people but also the unequal status for those who remained as citizens inside Israel.

The movement to the right wing within Zionism cannot be reduced to Lieberman, and what is troubling about Zionism cannot be reduced to its right-wing side only.

Nimer Sultany is a Palestinian citizen of Israel and currently a doctoral candidate at Harvard Law School. He has worked as a human rights lawyer in the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and as the head of the political monitoring project at Mada al-Carmel (the Arab center for applied social research).