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Avigdor Lieberman and the rise of the Israeli right

With the results of Tuesday’s Israeli election still largely undecided, one certainty has emerged from the chaotic aftermath: Israel is, as MJ Rosenberg noted on Wednesday, “becoming a right-wing country.”

While Kadima and Likud almost equally split the centre-right mandate, Labor, the party that originally built the Jewish state, received its lowest mandate ever, managing to only garner 13 seats in the Knesset. In its place, a new force has emerged from the far-right margins into the mainstream of Israeli politics in the form of Avignor Lieberman and Yisrael Beiteinu.

The ultra-nationalist party, formed by Lieberman in 1999 as an offshoot to Likud after Lieberman became disenchanted with concessions the party was making to the Palestinians, placed 3rd in voting, ahead of once-venerable Labor (although the 15 seats it picked up were somewhat lower than projected, a development that may reflect a strong turnout by Arab-Israeli voters). Most disturbingly, Yisrael Beiteinu may hold the final decision as to which party leader, Benjamin Netenyahu or Tzipi Livni, will form the next government of Israel.

Lieberman’s ascendancy should not come as a surprise to those who have been charting the recent course of Israeli politics.

Rosenberg points out that, over the past 32 years, “the right-wing Likud Party (or its Kadima spinoff) have controlled the government for 24 years, with the Labor Party only in power for eight,” creating a hardline political environment that has caused “the peace process [to founder] in the years since Labor Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shook PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat’s hand and began negotiations toward a two-state solution.”

Indeed, it was the brazen provocation of uber-hawk Ariel Sharon visiting the disputed Haram al-Sharif mosque complex in Jerusalem (recognized by Jews as the Temple Mount) that helped spark the second Intifada, further scuttling gains made by Rabin and Arafat.

But it was two events in 2006, the election of Hamas in Palestinian elections, followed by the ill-fated war against Lebanon, which was initiated by nominally centrist caretaker PM Ehud Olmert, that has accelerated Israel’s rightward drift and, arguably, allowed Lieberman to extend his political reach beyond the fringe.

In a 2007 Nation profile, Ben Lynfield notes that “[a]long with Netanyahu, Lieberman is the prime beneficiary of the sea change in Israeli politics after the Lebanon war,” that resulted in the existing political establishment, Kadima and Labor, becoming “discredited–but not Lieberman, who was not associated with the Lebanon debacle”. Add to the mix the corruption scandal that brought down Olmert’s governing coalition, forcing the most recent round of voting and you have a volatile electorate eager to sweep away the old order.

Indeed, in some ways, the stunning electoral success of Yisrael Beiteinu and Lieberman, a former bouncer who later received a B.A. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in political science and international relations, represents a secular nationalist parallel to the rise (such as it were) of Hamas, another hardline ultra-right-wing party swept into power in a transformative election following years of corruption and diplomatic insolvency on the part of the Palestinian Authority. But, unlike Hamas, which has been entirely marginalized by the global community following its unexpected electoral victory, Lieberman is treated as a legitimate political actor. According to Lynfield, [then] Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice welcomed [Lieberman] at the State Department on December 11, [2006], a day after he was featured at a forum, sponsored by the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center, that also included Bill Clinton, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and several other members of Congress.”

Still, despite having previously hob-nobbed with those who claim to support ‘democracy promotion’ in the Middle East, Lynfield further notes that, again, much like the Hamas leadership, “Lieberman, though striving for power through the ballot box, believes democracy is at best a secondary value.”

Lynfield quotes from a September 2006 interview with Lieberman, stating “I very much favor democracy, but when there is a contradiction between democratic and Jewish values, the Jewish and Zionist values are more important.”

What does Lieberman mean by “Jewish and Zionist values?”According to a recent TIME Magazine profile, Lieberman:

  • Has pushed to institute a mandatory loyalty oath and advocates stripping anyone who refused to sign it of their right to vote or hold public office.
  • Advocates a reduction of Israel’s Arab population by redrawing borders along Palestinian-controlled areas to cede select towns to the Palestinian Authority.
  • Has called for the death penalty for any Arab Knesset member found to be collaborating with Hamas.

Yisrael Beitenu’s original power base was built among Eastern European immigrants, many of whom left former Eastern Bloc nations following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 (Lieberman himself immigrated to Israel from Moldova in 1978). Most were residents of illegal West Bank settlements, and hold no love for hostile Palestinian Arabs whose land was unceremoniously appropriated–a sentiment that is, quite obviously, reciprocated. But Lieberman’s unwavering message of national pride and intolerance for dissent has reached beyond his initial constituency. The Israeli public’s reaction to what it perceives as an external, existential threat has been adroitly exploited by Lieberman and his partisans, striking a chord with many disenchanted Israeli citizens.

Before the election, Lieberman was quoted as stating that “Israel is under a dual terrorist attack, from within and from without. And terrorism from within is always more dangerous than terrorism from without,” rhetoric that resonated with an Israeli populace still reeling from ongoing rocket attacks from Gaza into Southern Israel. Even though said attacks do little measurable physical damage, the psychological effect has resulted in hardened Israeli public sentiment towards Palestinians living in the occupied territories–so much so that support for the recent war in Gaza was nearly universal, transcending ideological divides and essentially rendering the Israeli peace movement inconsequential.

As Shmuel Sandler, dean of social sciences at Bar Ilan University, quoted by the New York Times in a recent profile of Lieberman, observes, “[Lieberman] appeals to simple-minded voters. Average Israelis feel that we have given up territory, and at the same time the Arabs don’t want to accept the Jewish nature of the state.”

But is it simply ‘simple minded’ voters who find appeal in Lieberman’s certitude? This dismissive elite sentiment is questioned in a recent post by an Israeli blogger, quoted by Jeffrey Goldberg in his Atlantic.com blog:

“[W]hy is [Lieberman] gaining in the polls? Not because he offers simple solutions for simpletons, no, that’s actually what left-wing Meretz is doing, but because he is the only voice saying what a lot of people are thinking.”

As successful Yisrael Beitenu candidate Danny Ayalon said in a recent LA Times op-ed, Lieberman’s straight talk “appeals to Israelis after years of sweet talk about concessions for peace that have yielded nothing but more loss of life on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide.”

Much like European far-right politicians like Jorg Heider, Pim Fortuyn and Jean-Marie Le Pen, all of whom have made political hay out of exploiting fear of the brown other within, Avigdor Lieberman is rebranding ultra-nationalist right-wing populism for a 21st century political consumer–fascism with a smiling face and a ‘positive’ message. Rosenberg notes that, unlike traditional Israeli far-right parties, Lieberman “favors separation of synagogue and state” and “promises civil marriage and an end to the Orthodox monopoly of control on all matters relating to the Jewish religion.” Lieberman even advocates a version of the two-state solution, seeing separation of Jews and Arabs as a means of preserving Israel’s Jewish national character.

As a result of this more inclusive, ‘positive’ vision of anti-Arab nativism as a force for national renewal, Lieberman’s most devoted supporters tend to skew young, with Yisrael Beiteinu winning “the highest level of support in mock high-school polls,” according to Haaretz.

Ayalon is blunt in his explanation for Lieberman’s popularity: “[W]hat makes him persona non grata among the bien-pensant is precisely the source of his appeal to the broader public.”

Avigdor Lieberman may never actually become prime minister of Israel. But, by giving a face and a voice to long-repressed nativist, ultra-nationalist sentiments among many in the Israeli populace, he has perhaps irrevocably widened the gap between already-polarized Israeli and Palestinian polities.

With upcoming Palestinian elections almost certain to result in the ascension of a more radical (and possibly united) Palestinian government, the future of the peace process–and the prospects of a viable two-state solution–appear increasingly bleak. Intermediaries such as Quartet envoy Tony Blair, U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell, and representatives of the Turkish government will have to be innovative, patient and increasingly intolerant of hardline inflexibility on the part of all parties involved if a lasting peace in the Middle East is to be successfully brokered before it’s too late.