Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

"Avigdor Lieberman," October 23, 2006.

Avigdor Lieberman
This is a week that future generations may look back on as a milestone in the rise to power of Avigdor Lieberman.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been struggling since the collapse of his disengagement policy and the disastrous war in Lebanon last summer.

In a bid for political survival Olmert signed a deal last week to bring Lieberman and his party Yisrael Beiteinu (which means "Israel Is Our Home") into the governing coalition.

Olmert reinforced speculation that the 49-year old politician born in Moldova would address the issue of Iran by declaring that he expected to appoint him as a deputy prime minister to deal with "strategic threats against Israel".

The move is meant to shore up Olmert's majority in the 120-seat Knesset. The ruling coalition consists of 69 MPs, but there is uncertainty over how some Labour members, the junior partner in the coalition, may vote on budget legislation.

Yisrael Beiteinu's election slogan was "Israel is our home. Palestine is theirs," referring to Israel's Arab minority, which comprises 20 per cent of the population. In an interview with HaZofeh newspaper last month, Lieberman said: "The vision I would like to see here is the entrenching of the Jewish and the Zionist state."

"I very much favour democracy, but when there is a contradiction between democratic and Jewish values, the Jewish and Zionist values are more important."

His party's platform calls for the transfer of Arab areas of Israel to the Palestinian Authority and for annexing Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.

A sense of foreboding permeates statements from sources on the Israeli left, from the Jewish diaspora as well as from Arabs and international observers.

His vision

Lieberman is widely seen as someone who views Israel as a country where only Jews have political rights.

In 2002, Lieberman proposed to "destroy everything" in those parts of the West Bank designated by the Oslo peace accords as under control of the Palestinian Authority, known as Area A. The Independent quoted him as saying, “I would not hesitate to send the Israeli army into all of Area A. Destroy the foundation of all the authority's military infrastructure ... not leave one stone on another. Destroy everything.” He also suggested to the Israeli cabinet that the air force systematically bomb all the commercial centers, gas stations and banks in the occupied territories (Independent Mar 7 02).

Also in 2002, when he was a cabinet minister in the Sharon government, Lieberman called for all Palestinian political prisoners held by the Israeli occupation authorities, estimated at more than ten thousand, to be drowned in the Dead Sea. As minister of transport, he offered to provide the buses. (Ha'aretz Jul 11 02).

In 2004 he published his book “My Truth.” In it he calls for the unilateral redrawing of Israel's borders to exclude Israel's Arab citizens and to include the settlements Israel has built in the West Bank.

This proposal in effect calls for the ethnic cleansing of 1.2 million Israeli Arabs, transferring them to the Palestinian Authority without consultation with either Israel's Arab citizens themselves or the PA.

On May 4 of this year he proposed the trial and execution of Israeli Arab members of Knesset who talked to members of the Hamas-led Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) or who observed the Palestinian "Nakba day" rather than Israel's independence day.

Four days later American The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) expressed grave concern over his statements.

In an interview earlier this month (Oct 20 06) with Gershom Gorenberg of the Forward, he spoke of the “transfer” of Arab citizens. He said, “The problem with the Arabs inside Israel must come before the Palestinian problem.”

Lieberman opposed the Road Map and as recently as last Monday told reporters he doubted the wisdom of past peace deals in which Israel had given up occupied land for peace.

Israeli response

Lieberman is often denounced by his poltical opponents in Israel as a racist, a militarist, an ultra-nationalist, and an authoritarian with dictatorial intentions.

Hebrew University political science professor Zeev Sternhell is a leading academic specialist on fascism and totalitarianism. He described Lieberman as "perhaps the most dangerous politician in the history of the state of Israel" because of his “cocktail of nationalism, authoritarianism and dictatorial mentality” and because, unlike previous extreme-right figures he was not “marginalized.” Professor Sternhell added: “I cannot forget that Mussolini came to power with only 30 members of parliament.”

In 1998 he called for the bombing of Egypt's Aswan Dam in retaliation for Cairo's support for the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Even the staunchly nationalist YNet, which is the English version of Yediot Ahronot, admits in cautious language that Lieberman is "known for racially charged policy proposals" (Jaber Oct 24 06).

In a YNet op-ed, Tel-Aviv attorney Rada Jaber, writes that Lieberman "conceals his racism in explanations about the imminent danger and instability facing the country."

"Lieberman recognized a yearning on the part of the Jewish majority for use of massive force in resolving the issues at hand.

"He knows that by using tough language and spreading radical proposals he is answering the psychological needs of the masses, while at the same time knowing that putting these proposals into practice would be disastrous not only for the Arab population but also for the very existence of the State of Israel.

"...Israeli Arabs will not able to live under control and mastery for much longer, while constantly being signaled that their existence under this rule is temporary and conditional and that there is no chance of their desire for equality ever materializing.

"And all the while, complete, unconditional loyalty to the State is being demanded of them."

"He has a genuine social power base among the Russian immigrants and in the lower middle class among people who think the Knesset and supreme court have too much power," Professor Sternhell said.

"Now, by joining the cabinet, Lieberman is taking a giant step forward."

Week before last, Olmert's cabinet has also voted 12 to 11, with one abstention, to approve Lieberman's controversial bill to strip powers from Knesset and concentrate them in the hands of the prime minister - a decision which was seen as paving the way for his entry into the ruling coalition.

Lieberman's bill, which would do away with no-confidence votes, calls for the direct election of the prime minister, and allows him or her to appoint a cabinet without approval of MPs and to declare a state of emergency without the endorsement of either cabinet or the Knesset.

Equally important it would raise the minimum that a party must achieve to enter parliament from 2% to 10%. This would probably eliminate Arab parties, whose combined strength has never quite reached 10%.

Olmert confides that the bill is unlikely to pass the required three Knesset readings in its present form, but the cabinet vote was seen as a way of getting Mr Lieberman into the coalition.

The deal bringing Lieberman's into the ruling coalition still must be approved by Knesset.

Six Labor MKs have signed a motion against Lieberman's inclusion in the government coalition. The motion notes in part that "Labor, lead by Amir Peretz, promised the public that the party would not take part in a coalition with Avigdor Lieberman."

But just yesterday on Sunday, the party's Central Committee voted the motion down and passed another calling on the party to remain in the government "in order to promote social and diplomatic issues."

In a cover story for the British socialist New Statesman, John Kampfner puts the manoeuvers with Lieberman in a larger perspective. He writes from Israel that "the mood has rarely been more gloomy" and lists "the looming threat from Iran's putative nuclear arsenal; the constant threat of Syria, through what the Israelis see as its proxies in Hezbollah and Hamas; the consequences of the summer's war in Lebanon, described variously as a disaster or moderately bad; and the growing corruption inside Israel's body politic." That includes an announcement by the attorney general of a full inquiry into rape allegations against President Moshe Katsav and the resignation shortly before of justice minister Haim Ramon now on trial for sexual harassment. (Kampfner No peace in our time Oct 30 06)

Unfortunately for Canadians, this happens at a time when Stephen Harper and Peter Mackay have decided that the most complex and nuanced and long-standing of the deadly conflicts on the planet is actually simple. Their "solution" is to appear "decisive" by following the Bush lead and taking sides as if they were at a sporting match.

In true friendship or even dialogue, our friends let us know when they think we are making a really big mistake. Even if we don't follow their advice to the letter, hearing what they think makes a difference to us.

The Canadian and Israeli governments used to have that kind of relationship. Not any more.

On an individual level, this is not a time to choose sides; this is a time to take a principled stand for moderation and against the racism on both sides.

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