Arthur Neslen on the UK Guardian’s Comment is Free blog Oct. 25 outlines various intellectual responses to the ascendance of the frightening Avigdor Lieberman to the Israeli cabinet. One which he overlooks is the “smokescreen” response, put forth by the lefter-than-thou who maintain that the Israeli “moderates” are actually the greater threat because they lull the naive into a false sense of security. Perhaps Nelsen can be forgiven for overlooking this tendency, as some of these ideologues have actually found Lieberman’s ascendance unworthy of comment, as if warning of the danger he represents somehow lets Olmert and Peretz off the hook.
Ring the alarms
The rise of Avigdor Lieberman is more than just Israeli business as usual, so those who are sounding caution are right to do so.
It was a moment that Israel’s left and right had both been waiting for. The ascent of Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is our home) party into the corridors of power was the cue for pantomime cries of “victory”, “sell out”, “business as usual” and “fascism” to bloom across the country’s political desert.
While the “sell out” shrieks from Lieberman’s far-right bedfellows were feebly predictable, the “fascism” alarm call from veteran peace activist Uri Avnery was a more serious matter. It may circulate around the left for as long as his last such heads-up about Gush Emunim before disengagement, or the one a few months later about Israeli army officers after Lebanon. Indeed, Azmi Bishara, the leader of the Balad party, has already taken up the call.
The authoritarianism and racism of Lieberman’s party, especially its tub-thumping rhetoric of “transfer”, a euphemism for the ethnic cleansing of Arabs from Israel, is certainly frightening. But within Israel, there is nothing unprecedented about this platform.
In 1948 David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, presided over the expulsion of more than 750,000 Palestinians (during what Israelis call the war of independence and Palestinians know as the naqba). The country could not have been created in its current form without their enforced flight and the land seizures that followed. For this reason, denial of a Palestinian’s right of return is still seen as a litmus test in mainstream Israeli politics.
The most worrying thing about Lieberman is not that his ideas exist on a plane outside Israel’s political continuum but that, in many ways, they are close to its dead centre. The proposal to transfer “the triangle”, an area around Um al-Fahm where 250,000 Palestinian citizens of Israel currently live, was first brought into the press spotlight at the end of 2000 at Israel’s most prestigious annual policy-making forum, the Herzliya conference.
The then prime minister Ariel Sharon publicly floated the idea again in February 2004. Opposition from Washington to a de facto violation of international law reportedly took the plan out of the headlines, but it remained in the comment pages.
In December 2005, Uzi Arad, a former Mossad director, government foreign policy adviser and current head of the Institute for Policy and Strategy, which organises the Herzliya conference, resurrected the idea in an article for New Republic.
In June of this year, during his last visit to London, the current PM Ehud Olmert went further. He said that Europeans knew from historical memory that “territories were exchanged, that populations even moved sometimes, that territorial adjustments were made in order to create better circumstances for a peaceful solution”.
He added: “In one format or another, in one manner or another, at the end of the day, we will have to find ways to do it here.”
So why all the fuss about Lieberman’s “victory”? An editorial in the Ha’aretz newspaper yesterday gave a hint with its warning that Lieberman’s “lack of restraint and his unbridled tongue, comparable only to those of Iran’s president, are liable to bring disaster down upon the entire region”.
Lieberman, who has previously threatened to bomb Tehran, the Aswan Dam, and (less impressively) Beirut, has been awarded the new portfolio of minister for strategic threats. In Israeli politics, this translates as “the minister for planning war with Iran”, or possibly Gaza. But while his appointment is evidently a desperate move to try to ensure Olmert’s political survival, it can also be interpreted as crass diplomacy or even a preparation for war.
Still, no one is proposing that Lieberman is going to bend the Knesset, Washington and the UN to his will just so he can go bananas in Persia. If a decision is taken to bomb Iran, at this stage, he looks more likely to be a second tier fall guy than a mover and shaker.
As a Russian immigrant settler who admires President Putin and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army with equal ardour, Lieberman is an outsider among Israel’s political elite. And he probably won’t make it onto the AIPAC snack circuit either.
His support base among Israel’s million or so Russian-speakers – about 20% of the country’s population – reflects the particular insecurities of that community and the process of assimilating new Jewish immigrants.
While people of Russian descent in Israel often view themselves as over-achievers from the land of Chekhov and Dostoevsky, popular stereotypes depict them as aggressive drunks, primitive in their outlook, and probably not even Jewish. Indeed, as many as half of the country’s Russian speakers are not Jewish in the sense of having being born to a Jewish mother or converted to Judaism. Because of this, they cannot get married in the country.
In the old Soviet Union, Russian Jews were noted scientists, doctors and musicians but as “olim hadashim” (new immigrants), they have frequently been forced into low-paid and unskilled jobs, often as security guards. Lieberman appeals to them as a man cut from the same cloth. In the Soviet Union, he had worked as a broadcaster but after emigrating to Israel, his first job was as a bouncer at a disco.
A straight-talker, unlike most politicians, when he promises to support the introduction of civil marriages and introduce greater economic help for new immigrants, he is believed. When he promises not to compromise with the Arabs, it resonates among a population whose own stake in Israeli society feels precarious at best.
Again, there is nothing unique about this. Successive waves of migrants to Israel have been required to prove their Israeliness through racism and violence. Holocaust survivors became renowned in 1948 as the most merciless of warriors; Mizrahi (or Arab) Jews as the most fearful of anti-Arab racists. The meek Orthodox religious establishment won their spurs as gun-toting hilltop bigots, and today Russians and Ethiopians are following the same trajectory.
So is the rise of Lieberman, as others on this site have argued, just a case of Israeli business as usual then? Well, not exactly.
Israeli racism may be founded on denial of the naqba but since the “war on terror” began, its freedom to act on that denial has been enhanced by the suspension of external checks and balances on its behaviour. Now, when Israel kills civilians on a beach in Gaza, international sanctions are levied against its victims. When it commits war crimes in Lebanon the US rushes through emergency military aid.
In such a climate, it sometimes feels as if there’s no limit to how far rightwing reaction in the country can spread. Avnery and Bishara are right to sound an alarm.
Anti-Arab racism, for example, is currently approaching epidemic levels. Earlier this year, an opinion poll found that more than two-thirds of Israeli Jews would refuse to live in the same building as an Arab and half would not allow an Arab in their home. Among those surveyed 41% wanted entertainment facilities to be segregated, 18% said that they felt hatred when they heard Arabic spoken and 40% thought Israel should “support the emigration of Arab citizens”.
The irresistible rise of Avigdor Lieberman, now the second most popular prime ministerial candidate in Israel, is not so much making racism respectable as demonstrating what happens after the fact. If it helps liberals in the outside world to wake up to what is happening in this blighted land, Lieberman will have done a favour to Palestinians, the international community – and Israeli Jews.
On the other hand, if the mixture of authoritarianism and street racism that he champions is allowed to run riot within Israeli society, the results for the region could be more convulsive than many expect, whether they involve brown-shirted Russians marching through Jaffa or not.
See our last post on Israel/Palestine.