Thursday, February 12, 2009

To The Right Of Likud

Telegraph - No one rises to become "kingmaker" in the bear-pit of Israeli politics without possessing an abundance of raw political skill.

Photobucket Mr Lieberman, the leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, might hold abhorrent views, but he has risen from nowhere to become his country's most sought after politician, wielding the power to choose Israel's next prime minister. The succession of leaders now beating a path to his door has become almost embarrassing.

In a single day in Jerusalem, Tzipi Livni, from the centrist Kadima Party, and Benjamin Netanyahu, from the Right-wing Likud Party, both implored Mr Lieberman to join a government under their leadership.

The man himself is milking the limelight for all it is worth, coyly telling Israeli radio that he had made up his mind which of the two pretenders should become premier, but "it's too early to tell you just yet".

By declining to express any preference between Mr Netanyahu and Miss Livni – save for saying that in his "heart" he wants a "Right-wing government and a nationalist government" – Mr Lieberman is maximising his bargaining power. All that remains in question is which powerful job he will hold in Israel's next government and which of the two contenders will win the struggle for his favour.

Whoever does become Israel's new prime minister – and Mr Netanyahu is looking likely to win the crown – he or she will have no choice but to court international outrage by giving Mr Lieberman real prominence and power. The nationalist leader holds opinions that challenge comfortable Western assumptions about the Middle East and reflect the deeply-held views of many Israelis.

Mr Lieberman thinks that what we call the "peace process" has been a mistake from the start. Put simply, Mr Lieberman rejects every facet of President Barack Obama's thinking on the Middle East. When the nationalist leader has real power in Israel, the country could find itself on a collision course with America's new administration.

The Palestinians and their Arab brethren are determined to destroy Israel, he believes. Giving them a state along the 1967 borders that used to contain Israel would only whet their appetite for more.

Instead of leading to a settlement, the peace agreement that America and Europe would foist on Israel would only weaken the Jewish state and embolden its Arab neighbours to fulfil their destiny and eradicate the "Zionist Entity".

"The peace process is based on three false basic assumptions," Mr Lieberman has explained. "That the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the main fact of instability in the Middle East, that the conflict is territorial and not ideological, and that the establishment of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders will end the conflict."

Mr Lieberman's other fixation is with Israel's own Arab minority, which numbers about 1.4 million people or 20 per cent of the population. He thinks this increasingly radicalised community amounts to the "enemy within". While Mr Lieberman has not joined this rhetoric, his supporters have a tendency to chant "Death to the Arabs" at party rallies.

His solution is less drastic. He would merely subject all Israeli Arabs to a "loyalty test", asking them to swear allegiance to the Jewish state in return for their national identity cards. This requirement would, incidentally, extend to ultra-Orthodox Jews, who also refuse to recognise Israel as a Jewish state.

Mr Lieberman is vague about the penalty for failing to take this "loyalty test". During the campaign, he promised to strip any recalcitrants of their citizenship and adopted the slogan "No loyalty, no citizenship". But this policy would probably be illegal.

Some of Yisrael Beiteinu's acolytes think the refuseniks should keep their Israeli passports but lose the right to vote. Daniel Ayalon, formerly Israel's ambassador to Washington and now a follower of Mr Lieberman, stunned British journalists by telling them: "The right to vote is a political right and if you want to destroy the country, I don't have to play into it."

As for the damage this policy would do to Israel's standing as the only democracy in the Middle East – perhaps the one of the strongest arguments the country has in the battle for world opinion – Mr Lieberman is dismissive. He thinks that pandering to international opinion has been Israel's mistake all along. This amalgam of stubbornness and belligerence perhaps stems from Mr Lieberman's upbringing in the former Soviet Union.

He was born in 1958 in Moldova, one of the poorest and most obscure of the old Soviet republics. On leaving school, Mr Lieberman worked as a bouncer in a nightclub. In 1978, he was lucky enough to leave the Soviet Union and emigrate to Israel, where he studied international relations at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and completed his national service.

He entered politics as a follower of Likud, serving as Mr Netanyahu's chief of staff during his first premiership. But the arrival of one million Russian-speaking immigrants after the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991 created an immense opportunity for Mr Lieberman. This huge constituency was waiting for a party to represent their interests and, spotting his chance, he left Likud to found Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) in 1999.

The votes of the Russian minority were enough to propel Mr Lieberman into a series of minor cabinet jobs under Ariel Sharon's Likud-dominated government between 2002 and 2004. But it was only after he resigned in protest over Mr Sharon's proposed withdrawal from the Gaza Strip that Mr Lieberman managed to expand his appeal beyond the Russian arrivals. His great success was to mobilise Israelis who believe that concessions to the Palestinians lead nowhere – and events in Gaza have helped him. After Israel left Gaza in 2005, dismantling every Jewish settlement, its only reward was for Hamas to take over and use the territory as a launch pad for rocket attacks on Israel. In Mr Lieberman's eyes, this sequence of events vindicated his case.

There have been numerous unsavoury incidents during Mr Lieberman's political journey. Some have accused him of "racism" and even "fascism". He is being investigated for alleged fraud, money-laundering and embezzlement, although he protests his innocence.

But whatever people may think of Mr Lieberman, he represents a significant strand of Israeli public opinion that, regardless of the world's wishes, no one can ignore.

A Sample Of His Fine Work

Lieberman advocates land and population exchanges, seeking to reduce the number of Arabs who are Israeli citizens and dividing Jews and Arabs into two homogeneous states. The suggested plan is to award the Palestinian Authority governoship over Arab-Israeli towns near the West Bank in exchange for Israeli control over Jewish cities which reside on disputed territory. Lieberman also advocates that Arabs who remain Israeli citizens take loyalty tests and recognize Israel as a Jewish State. Those who refuse would be stripped of their citizenship, but could remain in Israel as permanent residents.

In November 2006, Lieberman has called for the execution of any Arab Knesset member who meets with the majority elected terrorist organization Islamist party Hamas, which advocates Israel's destruction, saying, "World War II ended with the Nuremberg trials. The heads of the Nazi regime, along with their collaborators, were executed. I hope this will be the fate of the collaborators in [the Knesset]."

In response, Ahmad Tibi, leader of the Arab nationalist party Ta'al demanded that "a criminal investigation be initiated against Lieberman for violating the law against incitement and racism". Lieberman was cleared of racism charges by the Israeli Deputy State prosecutor, while admitting that the office objected to the content of his statement. Tibi strongly objected to Lieberman's ministerial appointment, describing him as "a racist and a fascist". Labour minister Ophir Pines-Paz, who resigned over Lieberman's appointment, echoed Tibi's remarks, saying that Lieberman was tainted "by racist declarations and declarations that harm the democratic character of Israel".

In remarks in the Knesset in March 2008, shortly after the 6 March attack at Jerusalem's Mercaz HaRav yeshiva, Lieberman stated that "yesterday's attack can not be disconnected from the Arab MKs incitement, which we hear daily in the Knesset." and, directed at Arab MKs, that "a new administration will be established and then we will take care of you."

In February 2009 The Times reported: "His fan base sees him as a forceful leader with clear vision who can sweep away almost two decades of compromise with the Palestinians, which they say has only led to more terrorism, and impose tough conditions that will ensure Israel's security. At recent rallies, youthful right-wing supporters have chanted “Death to the Arabs” as they awaited their hero.

I hope this guy ends up with a red button labeled "Tehran" on his desk.