[lit-ideas] The rise of Lieberman

  • From: Omar Kusturica <omarkusto@xxxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Thu, 2 Nov 2006 17:40:47 -0800 (PST)


The rise of the rightwinger who takes his cue from

The return to power of Avigdor Lieberman and his
anti-Arab racism is a mark of the point Israeli
politics has now reached 

Jonathan Steele in Jerusalem
Thursday November 2, 2006
The Guardian 

At one level you have to hand it to the Israelis. Once
cleared into the the Knesset, the parliament building,
journalists can wander into the members' cafeteria
without an escort. Cheaply made tables are packed
together as closely as in an airport terminal, and
ministers queue to load their trays with no priority
over backbenchers.

Avigdor Lieberman, the ultra-rightwinger, hunches over
a soup bowl by the window. Two tables away Ahmed Tibi,
an Arab who is deputy speaker, chats to reporters in
between fielding mobile phone calls. It is admirably
egalitarian and unstuffy, but the mood was far from
relaxed on Monday. The government majority was just
about to vote to approve Ehud Olmert's appointment of
Lieberman as deputy prime minister, with a brief to
handle the "strategic threats" which Israel faces.

Tibi was furious. In other parts of the world a man
like Lieberman - "a very dangerous and sophisticated
politician who has won his support through race
hatred" - would be shunned, he fulminated. In Israel
he was given a top job.

Lieberman has described Tibi and other Israeli Arabs
who have met Hamas officials as traitors. They should
be executed, he said last year, just as the judges at
Nuremberg condemned not only Nazi leaders but those
who collaborated with them. Lieberman also advocates
stripping Arabs in north-eastern Israel of their
citizenship and putting their areas under Palestinian
rule. In return, Israel should take more land on the
West Bank than even Olmert envisages.

Tibi was not worried that the government "would become
more brutal" because of Lieberman's presence in
cabinet. After all, the mushrooming of roadblocks in
the West Bank, the assassinations in Gaza and the war
on Lebanon happened without him. "Our problem is with
Israeli society," said Tibi. "The appointment of this
racist and fascist sends a message to me as an Arab
and a human being."

Sitting in the cafeteria alongside Tibi, Zehava Galon,
who leads the parliamentary wing of Meretz, Israel's
small leftwing party, was equally appalled. Her anger
was directed at the Labour party ministers in Olmert's
coalition for failing to resign in protest. This was
bound to lower politicians' public respect by several
more notches, she said. She had written a letter to
the Labour caucus arguing that Lieberman was worse
than Austria's Jörg Haider or France's Jean-Marie Le
Pen. But only one minister chose to leave the

"Lieberman's appointment will influence the whole
atmosphere of Israeli society," said Galon. "Ministers
are only interested in keeping their chairs ...
Politicians are already seen as cynical, with no
values, no ideology, no principles. This will make it
worse. There is no leftwing camp in Israel now. If the
Labour party thinks it's legitimate to be allied with
Lieberman, I can no longer consider them left, liberal
or democratic. This appointment is a terrorist attack
on democracy."

As her gloom and anger mounted, the man himself
carried on lunching, pausing only to take a few
questions from the Guardian. In a mixture of Russian
and English, he told me that his priorities in
government would be "to establish a proper process of
decision-making" and push through "a strategic vision
for the final solution of how Israel will look in 20
or 25 years' time ... It's not only an issue of
territory and borders but of the character of the
state - will it be a Zionist state, a Jewish state, or
a state like others? I want it to be a Jewish state."

Labour ministers acknowledge that their support was
crumbling before the Lieberman appointment. Amir
Peretz, their party leader, currently has a poll
rating as a potential prime minister of a derisory 1%.
He is one of the first defence ministers with no
military background - "the only things which have ever
whistled past him are ping pong balls", as one
opponent sneered. He was widely criticised for his
performance in the Lebanon war. Meanwhile, Labour's
promises to use its role in government to protect
spending on social services came to little. The latest
budget lifts military spending even higher.

Nevertheless, it was better to stay in the cabinet,
since Lieberman was only one of 25 ministers,
maintained Yuli Tamir, the education minister.
Lieberman's role was defined narrowly. He was not in
charge of defence or foreign policy, and had no
spending powers.

Given the public's disillusionment with politicians,
wouldn't it raise Labour's standing to resign, I
asked. "It'll go up for a moment, but resigning is
only popular for a while," replied Tamir. "Besides, we
thought Lieberman would have more power if we pulled

While Labour's critics call the party's bigwigs
cynical for clinging to their cabinet seats, no one
overlooks the cynicism of Olmert and Lieberman. By
bringing Lieberman into the cabinet, Olmert has given
his unstable coalition a sudden new burst of life.
Struggling after the fiasco of the war in Lebanon, he
now has 78 votes in the 120-seat Knesset and is safe
from being toppled.

Lieberman's motives are also clear. A protege of the
former Likud prime minister Bibi Netanyahu, he formed
his own party after Netanyahu lost power in 1999. He
got his initial support from post-Soviet Russian
immigrants, appealing to their anti-Arab racism and
instinct for tough leadership. Taking his cue from
Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin, Lieberman advocates
raising the threshold for small parties to get into
parliament, thereby effectively shutting the Arab ones

Recently he has sought to broaden his political base
and, since Lebanon, polls have shown him with twice as
much support as Olmert, though still not as much as
his old mentor, Netanyahu, who tops the current
rankings. Joining Olmert's government allows him to
get a different profile from Netanyahu. It also gives
him a chance to pull Olmert in a hardline direction
and take credit for it at the next election.

Lieberman has been in government before. He served
twice under Sharon, but was sacked for his "population
swap" ideas and for opposing the disengagement from
Gaza. The fact that Sharon's successor has brought him
back, this time as a deputy prime minister, shows how
far to the right Israel's policy makers have moved,
even as progressive Israelis feel increasingly
sickened by the musical chairs at the top. Recent
corruption and sex scandals had already tarnished the
image of the political class. Now people wonder which
is worse: Lieberman coming in or Labour not going out.


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