Avigdor Lieberman, The Far Right and the New Israeli Government

This post was written by Guest Post on March 17, 2009
Posted Under: Israel/Palestine

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.

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Reader Comments

Israelis vote for the right, because they believe they are more likely than the left, to make a peace deal. It’s like Nixon goes to China.

Written By Renegade Eye on March 17th, 2009 @ 5:15 pm

Not sure that’s true, either in the sense of “Israelis vote for the right” generally or in the context of the recent election. Why was the right elected historically in very brief and very simplistic terms? Begin was elected because of disillusionment with 30 years of Mapai/Alignment rule. Shamir was PM first in a rotation government, then was re-elected precisely because he did not want to deal with the PLO. Netanyahu was elected after Rabin’s assassination because of a backlash against Hamas’s bombing campaign. Sharon came to power because Israelis felt they needed a thug to deal with the al-Aqsa Intifada.

As I explained above, right-wing PMs making peace deals or concessions were not what their voting public expected. One of the reasons why Shamir, the Lechi commando who took Israel to the Madrid Conference, was toppled was because his party was disgusted at the thought of recognising the PLO.

Some people seem to think that Israelis vote for right or left only thinking about foreign policy in terms of a peace settlement. If anything, Israelis vote for the right, especially in the context of conflicts, because they want their problems to be dealt with, not negotiated over.

Written By Mike on March 17th, 2009 @ 11:59 pm

Insightful post.

Written By Jack on March 18th, 2009 @ 11:49 am

Like all far right politicians Lieberman appeals to those who are, or have a sense of being, disenfranchised. Several Israeli commentators describe Lieberman as a fascist not as a throwaway term of abuse but as a sober judgement on the state worshipping and populist nationalist ideology of a individual who has never strayed far from his political roots as a member of Rabbi Meir Kahane’s outlawed Kach Party. And he will seek to bring those with a sense of disenfranchisement closer to the core racist element among his younger supporters who lead chants of “Death to the Arabs” at his rallies.

His targeting though of Israel’s Arab citizens – whom he thinks need to earn their civil rights in the land their families have lived in considerably longer than Leiberman or any other Israeli minister – at least brings a focus on the true achilles heel of Zionism. Because whatever deal is eventually hammered out over the occupied territories in the next 5, 10 or 20 years which will result in two states, the issue will remain abut the content of those states. If Israel continues to insist that its state should enshrine the privileges of its Jewish citizens above others it will never be at peace within.

The true challenge of Lieberman’s rise to prominence, with his demonisation of Israel’s Arab citizens and his fantasies of expulsion, is whether Israeli society will grasp the counter idea that Israel must seek to become a state of all its citizens on an equal basis.

Written By DavidR on March 22nd, 2009 @ 9:59 am

Mike’s post is particularly interesting because, unlike much of the rhetoric on Israel/Palestine (from all sides), it analyses Lieberman’s appeal to voters in terms of some of the fault lines, conflicts and grievances within Israeli society. There were similar issues at work at the time when Begin was elected in 1977, as a result of the promise he appeared to offer to Israeli Jews from Arab and other non-European countries, who had suffered harsh economic, social and cultural discrimination at the hands of successive so-called Labour governments. Extreme right-wing parties have a habit of riding to power on the backs of the most oppressed and depressed elements of their society. This is the danger of more mainstream parties contemptuously disregarding and belittling groups of people they are elected to serve.

Written By Julia on March 22nd, 2009 @ 10:04 am

Adore these kinds of steam showers

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