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Meet Avigdor Lieberman: Israel’s New FM…

May 13, 2009

INTRODUCTION: BACKGROUND ON ISRAELI ELECTIONS

Israel’s February 10th National Election results confirmed the country’s worrying rightward political shift.  The election results were basically a tie between Tzipi Livni of Kadima with 28 seats in the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) and Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud with 27 seats.  Coming in third was Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beitenu, an extremely nationalist and right-wing party.  Both Kadima and Likud now have the chance to show President Peres that they can form a successful government.  Both are trying to recruit Lieberman to be part of their government because of the support he will bring.  Because of Israel’s political shift to the far right, he will be the deciding factor in whether Kadima or Likud will lead the new government—earning him the nickname “kingmaker”.

WHO IS AVIGDOR LIEBERMAN?

Lieberman was born in Ishinev, Soviet Union (now Moldova).  He studied at an agricultural institute and after finishing he worked as a nightclub bouncer and broadcaster in Baku, Azerbaijan.  He moved with his parents to Israel in 1978, served in the army and studied social sciences at university before starting his career in politics. 

He created Yisrael Beitenu in 1999 and was elected to the Knesset the same year.  According to the New Republic’s Martin Peretz, Lieberman is a “neo-fascist…a certified gangster.”  Yisrael Beitenu is the product of mass emigration from former soviet countries and is ultra-nationalist—earning him another nickname: ‘the Israeli Putin’. 

WHAT DOES YISRAEL BEITENU STAND FOR?

The three main goals of the party according to its website are Aliyah (immigration of Jewish people around the world to Israel), increasing (illegal) settlements, and defense.  Because all settlements in the West Bank are illegal and extremely destructive to the Palestinians and to the Peace Process, the possibility of increasing settlements will only worsen those problems.  In terms of defense, Lieberman describes Israel’s main enemies as the non-Jewish Arab minority living inside Israel and Iran.    

 Lieberman will combat the ‘enemy within’—a name referring to the non-Jewish Arab Israeli minority living in Israel in three main ways: Forced Land Tranfers (i.e. ethnic cleansing), a mandatory oath of loyalty to the Jewish state of Israel, and the banning of Arab political parties.

 PR CAMPAIGN: YISRAEL BEITENU IN LINE WITH U.S. SENSIBILITIES?

 With all this in mind, it is easy to see why Lieberman might be worried about his ‘image’ in the West.  In order to combat any negative portrayals of him or his party in the media, he is launching a “global charm offensive” focused mainly on Europe and the U.S.—the places where his ultra nationalist and racist policies should offend the most people.  In Yisrael Beitenu’s PR campaign, they will try to show how the party’s platform is actually in line with Western sensibilities. 

 Leading the campaign in the U.S. is Daniel Ayalon, the former Israeli ambassador to the U.S.  He will be meeting with senators and congressmen in Washington, D.C. and New York City as well as State Department officials, heads of Jewish organizations, and the media.  He will try to explain to them how the forced land and population transfers—which sound a little too much like ethnic cleansing, and the mandatory loyalty oath for non-Jewish Arabs is “not intended to harm the Arab population”. 

 Ayalon’s main goal during the ‘charm offensive’ is to make people in the West understand that “Lieberman is not a monster” and to show how Lieberman’s policies are actually in line with Western sensibilities.  Hopefully the American people will think critically enough to make that difficult for him. 

 Ayalon says that “in many ways we represent issues that are close to Americans, such as a constitution, a presidential system, and an oath of allegiance to the country.”  First of all, Israel has no written constitution—besides the Torah and other religious texts; which is definitely not in line with American ideals about the separation of church and state.  Israel’s presidential system is similar to the U.S., but cannot be described as something that makes America, America. 

 Most Americans would agree that the most important American ideals include freedom of speech, diversity, and equality of social and political rights regardless of race, religion, or gender.  Although Israel’s Declaration of Independence is similar to the U.S.’s in that it espouses these ideals, none of them can be found in practice in Israel with respect to the non-Jewish Arab Israeli minority.  They have continually been discriminated against in many ways since the inception of Israel.

 MANDATORY OATH OF LOYALTY:

 The first way Lieberman will try to combat the enemy within and strip non-Jewish Arab Israelis of their citizenship is the mandatory oath of loyalty.  If this is approved, non-Jewish Arabs will be forced to take an oath of loyalty to the “Jewish State of Israel” along with all of its Jewish symbols.

 This will only affect the non-Jewish Arabs, the Jewish Israelis will not have to take the oath.  This has prompted many people to call Lieberman and his policies racist and xenophobic, and has caused an outcry from the Arab minority within Israel.  According to Azmi Bishara, a former Arab member of the Knesset:

“The people who stayed here did not immigrate here, this is our country.  This state came here and was enforced on the ruins of my nation.  I accepted citizenship to be able to live here, and I will not do anything, security wise, against the state.  I am not going to conspire against the state, but you cannot ask me every day if I am loyal to the State.  Citizenship demands from me to be loyal to the law, but not to the values or ideologies of the state.  It is enough to be loyal to the law.”

 To Azmi and other Arab members of the Knesset, Lieberman has this response; “a new administration will be established and then we will take care of you.”  This is a frightening threat coming from the ‘Israeli Putin’, especially in the context of a previous suggestion he had for Arab political prisoners who were being released from jail:

 “It would be better to drown these prisoners in the Dead Sea if possible, since that’s the lowest point in the world.” 

 With Lieberman in a position of influence, Israel’s policies will be ultra-nationalist, xenophobic, and aggressive towards Iran and towards the Arab minority within Israel.

 IS THIS IN LINE WITH ‘AMERICAN SENSIBILITIES’?

 As American children begin their school day, in most schools they start by saying the pledge of allegiance. 

“We pledge allegiance, to the flag, of the United States of America.  And to the republic, for which it stands, one nation, [under God] indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” 

 This is the only ‘oath of loyalty’ that Americans have to make—unless they are immigrants coming to America and applying for citizenship.  Americans who are born and live in America are not forced to take an oath of loyalty to the government or any of its symbols. 

 In Israel, Lieberman is trying to impose a mandatory ‘oath of loyalty’ to the Jewish state of Israel.  This differs from any pledge of allegiance Americans have to make in that it is pledging loyalty to a religious state. 

 In the U.S., that would never happen because one of the highest ideals in America and the basis of its creation was freedom of religion and the separation of church and state.  In Israel, no such concept of separation of church and state exists.  Israel is a self-described Jewish state. 

 The second reason the ‘oath of loyalty’ that Lieberman is proposing is not in line with American sensibilities and values is that fact that only non-Jewish, Arab Israeli citizens must take the oath.  If they do not, for any number of logical reasons, their citizenship will be revoked.  This is blatant discrimination, if not outright racism, against non-Jewish, Arab Israelis. 

 Discrimination based on religious creed, gender, or ethnicity is a very un-American concept, yet Lieberman’s PR campaign in the U.S. and Europe is trying to show how the mandatory oath of loyalty is in line with Western ideals.  Hopefully, people will see through his ploy and recognize that this racist and discriminatory oath opposes Western ideals.

  ON ETHNIC CLEANSING—FORCED LAND TRANSFERS

 The other method of stripping non-Jewish Arabs of their citizenship and thus preserving the ‘Jewish character’ of the state is Lieberman’s planned land transfers which equates to the ethnic cleansing of non-Jewish Arab Israelis.  His plan is to re-draw the borders of the West Bank to include an area north of the territory called the ‘Arab Triangle’.  It is an area with a majority Arab Israeli population and Lieberman is proposing to make that area part of the West Bank in exchange for making the areas of the West Bank with a high density of illegal settlements part of Israel. 

 One of the biggest problems with this idea is that the Arab Israelis do not want to lose their Israeli citizenship—which is exactly what would happen if they were forcibly removed from Israel by this land transfer.  It is easy to see why they would want to keep their Israeli citizenship despite all of the discrimination when you realize that once they become a citizen of the West Bank, they will face a much harder life.

 Through these forced land transfers, Lieberman is going against Western pluralist sensibilities.  He is trying to make Israel’s population completely Jewish by targeting the non-Jewish minority through the mandatory oath of loyalty and the ethnic cleansing. 

 With these things in mind, it is easy to see why Arab Israelis are opposed to the idea of the land transfers.  However, although Israel professes itself to be a democracy, Lieberman’s plans will likely go ahead despite their protests if he can convince the Western world to support him. 

 Ayalon said in the beginning of the PR campaign that “in many ways [Yisrael Beitenu] represents issues that are close to Americans.”  Ethnic cleansing is not in line with American or Western values—every American and European would agree that it is probably the furthest thing from Western values.  Again, this plan shows Lieberman and his party for what they are—discriminatory and racist against the non-Jewish Arab Israelis.

 ON THE BANNING OF ARAB ISRAELI POLITICAL PARTIES

 The most important way that America and the West relates to Israel is the fact that Israel is supposed to be the ‘only democracy in the Middle East’ and in that way is valuable to and protected by the West. 

 The banning of political parties based on race or religion is not democratic by Western standards—in fact it opposes the basic meaning of democracy.  However, Israel has—on multiple occasions—banned or tried to ban non-Jewish Arab Israeli political parties.  The most recent example was in January 2009 before the parliamentary elections where two Arab parties, United Arab List-Ta’al and Balad, were banned from participating in the elections.

 Who was the impetus behind this Supreme Court decision?  Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu and another ultra-right wing Israeli political party, of course.  Lieberman says that Israel cannot remain a ‘democratic state’ unless all those who oppose the Zionist political viewpoints are expelled. 

 Does this sound democratic?  Is this in line with Western ideals?  Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek commented that “no liberal democracy that I know of since World War II has disenfranchised or expelled its own citizens.” 

 This decision was called a “political trial led by a group of fascists and racists who are willing to see the Knesset without Arabs and want to see the country without Arabs” by Ahmed Tibi, an Arab Israeli lawmaker. 

 Ayalon will tour Europe and America and try to explain how Yisrael Beitenu has similar values to the west soon.  But how is banning political parties based on race and religion democratic?  Democracy implies pluralism—a true democratic political system represents all of the citizens of a state.  In Israel, one fifth of the population is non-Jewish Arab Israelis—in a true democracy, they would be allowed representation.  In Israel, they are banned.  Israel is not a true democracy and is not in line with Western values.

 IMPLICATIONS FOR THE ARABS, IRAN, AND THE PEACE PROCESS:

 According to Lieberman, “continuing with the Road Map [to peace] will only lead to new clashes.”  Lierberman’s only method of dealing with ‘terror’ activity that is halting the peace process is more violence. 

 In an ultimatum to the Palestinians during the second Intifada, he said “if it were up to me I would notify the Palestinian Authority that tomorrow at 10 AM we would bomb all their places of business in Ramallah, for example.” 

 And to combat Hamas today Lieberman invokes one of the bloodiest massacres in history to be the fate of the Gazans.  In January 2009 he said that Israel “must continue to fight Hamas just like the United States did with the Japanese in World War II.  Then, too, the occupation of the country was unnecessary.”  He also commented that Israel would bring a “greater Holocaust” on Gaza if the rockets did not stop.

  The second most important threat, besides the Israeli Arab minority, according to Lieberman is Iran.  With respect to defending Israel against Iran, Lieberman’s most likely strategy would be war—with or without the support of the United States.  According to Lieberman;

“The day after the new government is elected, it needs to say to the international community, that for now we are not talking about the Syrians or about the Palestinians.  All of you together can just go stick it.  Until there’s a solution to the Iranian problem, we’re not dealing with the settlements or with the settlers or with anything else.  Only after the source of the problem- Iran- is resolved will it be possible to discuss the symptoms of the [other] problems.”

 What this statement implies is that there will be no continuation of the peace process or continuation of the Road Map to Peace by removing illegal settlements until the “Iran problem” is dealt with. 

 Considering the enormity of the Iranian problem according to Lieberman, it can be safely assumed that the peace process and removal of illegal settlements will not be continued while he is in a position of power.

 IMPLICATIONS FOR THE U.S.:

 The implications for the U.S. if Lieberman decides to go to war with Iran are huge.  In one scenario, the U.S. would support Israel’s assault on Iran financially and militarily by supplying the Israeli military with weapons and American soldiers.  This would that the U.S. would be waging three wars simultaneously in the Middle East.  It would endanger the lives of many American soldiers unnecessarily and would further strain the American economy.

 The second scenario is even more frightening.  If the U.S. says no to supporting an Israeli war on Iran, and does not support it financially or militarily, Israel would be forced to wage the war alone.  Waging a full scale war on Iran would leave the state of Israel with very little security at home, and would make it susceptible to attacks from other countries in the area. 

 This could mean that the U.S. would lose Israel as its powerful and ‘democratic’ foothold in the Middle East and would most likely destabilize the entire region.  This is one reason why it is more likely that the U.S. would agree to support Israel if they decided to invade Iran even if they did not agree with the war.  The opinion of the U.S. in the Middle East would be further destroyed if they backed Israel’s decision to go to war with Iran.

 A war in Iran would be catastrophic for everyone involved and unnecessary as the diplomatic process between Israel, the U.S., and Iran has not been exhausted yet.  But Lieberman is not interested in any peaceful means, he is interested in defense—which to him means war. 

 ISRAEL’S FUTURE:

 With Lieberman in power in Israel, the Middle East will only become more volatile.  The peace process with the Palestinians will be halted and any hope of a two-state solution destroyed.  If he gets his way, Israel will invade Iran—most likely with American support. 

 A war in Iran would not make Israel or its citizens more secure—in fact it would put them at an even greater risk.  So far, Iran has only threatened Israel; but if Israel invades Iran it will do everything in its power to follow through on those threats. 

 With respect to Israel as a country; Lieberman is trying to change the borders and the demographics in a racist effort through forced land transfers.  He is attempting to homogenize the country so that it is 100% Jewish by getting rid of the non-Jewish Arab Israeli minority. 

 Lieberman’s ideals are not, in any way, similar to the ideals of the West and the U.S.  They are, in fact, the antithesis of Western ideals of democracy, pluralism, and equality regardless of race or religion. 

 He is a dangerous man for Israel itself and for the Middle East.  If the U.S. decides to support him and his policies, he will be dangerous to the U.S. as well.  Hopefully Western leaders will see through Lieberman’s “charm offensive” and see him for what he really is; a right-wing ultra-nationalist, a racist, and a war monger.

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