This is a guest post written specifically for the The Third Estate by The Grudging Blogger. With many thanks.
Whilst I cannot claim to be atypical, progressive or irreverent, Reuben has asked me to write a piece on the formation of the new Israeli government. As they seem to be the talking point in the Israeli and Arab press, I thought I’d look at Yisra’el Beitenu (“Israel Our Home”), the Russian-dominated nationalist party that scored a significant victory in the recent elections, and its leader, the former Moldovan bouncer Avigdor Lieberman.
“Good morning Israel. Citizens, class-B citizens, class-C citizens, and Arabs: I hereby declare the founding of the new Jewish state of Israel Beitenu.”
The ominous scene and words above come from an election-night skit from the Israeli satire show Eretz Nehederet (“Wonderful Country”). As a result of the necessity of coalition formation in the Israeli political system, and the reluctance of Kadima’s Tzipi Livni to enter into national unity negotiations early on, Prime Minister-delegate Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu has had to deal with Lieberman and his nationalists. The dark humour is indicative of a genuine fear in some sectors of Israeli society as to what Lieberman’s rise to power could mean.
Lieberman’s negotiations with Bibi didn’t result in the total domination of key ministerial positions that many initially expected. However, in the recent agreement signed between Yisra’el Beitenu and Bibi’s Likud party, Lieberman will get the crucial Foreign Ministry post he was after, and other members of his party will take on the ministries of Internal Security, Tourism, Infrastructure and Immigrant Absorption.
If you look at Yisra’el Beitenu’s election manifestos, and Lieberman’s speeches and blogs, you can see why some Israelis are more than concerned at him getting such key political posts, but at the same time understand why they did so well in the elections. Lieberman promised to rejuvenate the decaying education system, reform the fragmented electoral process, and cut down crime. All are fairly standard vote winners.
However, it is precisely in the areas of foreign policy and internal security that Lieberman provokes the most worry. His solution to the problem of Hamas in Gaza? Cut it off completely from contact with the West Bank, Israel and the wider world. His “viable Palestinian state”? Not land-for-peace but land-for-land, then peace, with a swap of high population Jewish settlements in the West Bank with Arab towns in northern Israel. His approach to Israel’s 1.5 million Arab citizens? Swear a loyalty oath and undergo national service. Don’t want to? Lose all entitlements to state benefits. Engaged in activities deemed damaging to the state? Good-bye citizenship.
I’ve researched Yisra’el Beitenu’s political and ideological lineage, and although it was initially touted as the party of the Russian immigrants, it also contains elements of many of Israel’s most extreme expansionist and rejectionist parties and ideologies. But, in these early days, how seriously should we take Lieberman and his party?
On the one hand, Israeli right-wing politicians are (in)famous for their political pragmatism. For example, Menachem Begin, leader of the Irgun and founder of the Likud, was the last person anyone expected to return conquered land to the Arabs, but he did just that in his peace agreement with Sadat. Even more to the right than Begin, ex-Lehi member Yitzhak Shamir started Israel on the road to Oslo. And Ariel Sharon was seen to be forsaking the settlers he had previously encouraged by withdrawing from Gaza. In the end, security concerns prevailed over ideology, so perhaps Lieberman too could surprise.
But at the moment it seems unlikely. Although conflicts generally send Israeli voters lurching to the right, Lieberman presents his ideology as different, a return to what he sees as the core values of Zionism, Israel as a Jewish state under a Herzlian unity of ideology and leadership. And in a country with constant debates about ethnicity, religion-versus-secularism, minority rights, not to mention endemic political corruption typified by outgoing Prime Minister Olmert, you can see why this national renewal promised by Lieberman (also under investigation for corruption) is so appealing.
Lieberman’s current rejection of the land-for-peace formula could bring Israel big problems. Both America and the EU have made it very clear to Bibi that they expect the continuation of the peace process along the Road-Map. But the Israeli public is increasingly disillusioned with the lack of progress, from their own politicians and the Palestinians, shown by the fall in votes for “peace” parties like Labour and Meretz. In addition, the perceived decline in social values and public services has led some to see the current political system as a spent force, rotten with corruption, often held to ransom by ultra-religious elements, and utterly fragmented. Some commentators have spoken of the need to start again, to form a “Second Republic” as the current Cabinet Secretary termed it, and this desire to regroup and reform is something underestimated by those outside of Israel.
For Likud, Bibi’s victory can be explained in terms of his economic reputation and a more general rejection of Kadima’s failed pragmatism. For Yisra’el Beitenu’s, many of its votes unsurprisingly came from places like Ariel (a settlement) and Ashkelon (a recipient of Gazan rockets). Unpopular in the power centres of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, the party is making inroads into other more neglected areas like Netanya and mixed Arab-Jewish areas like Haifa. I think Yisra’el Beitenu’s successes are significant in that it cannot be simply be explained away by this election’s rightwards lurch. Its policies of electoral reform, state secularism, political unity, social rejuvenation and especially peace based on land-for-land, are appealing to a growing and broadening number of Israelis frustrated with and consistently let down by the existing political system. Of course, ideology and rhetoric aside, what Lieberman can actually do as Foreign Minister, and how different he will actually be, is an entirely different matter.