February 19, 2009
Last week’s Israeli election results have left Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the Yisrael Beitenu (Israel is our Home) party, as the potential king-maker in talks surrounding the formation of a new coalition government. Lieberman, who immigrated to Israel from Moldova in 1978, has risen steadily within the Israeli political world; in the last three elections, his party’s strength has grown from nine to 11 to now 15 seats. He has served in cabinet posts, including Minister of Strategic Affairs from 2006-2008. Yet for many Israelis and for those who care about Israeli democracy, Lieberman’s success and his potential presence in a new Israeli government is cause for considerable concern.
Lieberman has never disguised his belief that Israel’s Arab citizens are a potential fifth column, threatening Israel’s security and well-being. He advocates a policy of “transfer,” whereby areas of Israel that are heavily populated by Arabs would eventually become part of a Palestinian state. Those Arabs living within the transferred areas would have the choice of moving to other parts of Israel or automatically forfeiting their Israeli citizenship. Proposing such a policy sends an explicit message to 20 percent of Israel’s citizens that they are unwanted in the country in which they work, live, pay taxes and attempt to find some path to equality in the designated Jewish homeland.
In the most recent election, Lieberman’s party campaigned on the slogan – “without loyalty there is no citizenship.” This notion defies a central value of democracy - namely, that human and civil rights are not dependent on how a government classifies the non-violent expression of opinions. Lieberman’s formulation presents a recipe for the legal disenfranchisement of any Israeli, Jew or Arab, who fails to meet some government’s standard of “loyalty.”
Lieberman’s likely political ascension raises questions regarding the quality of Israeli democracy from an exclusively domestic concern to a subject of discussion among Western democracies. Israel has long promoted international isolation for governments that include parties with views abhorrent to democratic discourse, whether in Austria or Palestine. The international community, already poised to pounce on Israeli failings, will certainly question the inclusion in an Israeli government of a party that is deemed by many to fall outside the acceptable political pale.
Leaders of the organized Jewish communities outside Israel, who appropriately view Israeli elections as domestic matters, face a difficult dilemma: should they declare a leading Israeli political actor persona non grata for his grotesque political views? On the one hand, Jewish leaders have been at the forefront of speaking out against racist expressions all over the world. On the other hand, criticizing Lieberman’s inclusion as a senior cabinet official would require a significant transformation in communal attitudes.
The Lieberman question takes on added relevance as Jewish and human rights organizations react to the Obama Administration decision to participate in planning meetings for the upcoming World Conference Against Racism (Durban II). The Israeli government and many Jewish groups are urging the US and other Western countries to boycott the conference, fearing that, as in 2001, the conference will simply serve as a forum for anti-Israel bashing. Human rights groups, on the other hand, are encouraging the new Administration to lead an effort to reclaim the conference for a serious investigation of racism as an all-too- prevalent worldwide phenomena. Consistent with our signing of the Magenta principles, NIF hopes that the upcoming conference does not serve as a “vehicle for promoting racism, including anti-semitism” and bars incitement to hatred against any group in the guise of criticism of any particular government.”
Yet, even as I am personally appalled by Lieberman’s potentially assuming a senior role in Israeli politics, and worry about how this will play internationally, I am still convinced that the international community, and particularly the United States, must focus on the broader goal of facilitating a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Taking the principled stand of not dealing with a government that includes individuals whose views are distasteful will not serve our broader national interests. The foreign policy challenge requires engaging all relevant actors, without legitimizing their offensive perspectives.