Lieberman influencing Israeli politics


The Middle East has never been the most tranquil place, but recent events in Israel and the Palestinian territories have created more turmoil than usual. Israel's Operation Cast Lead left hundreds of Gazans dead and many more wounded. It also led to a lot of psychological distress for at least 15 Israeli casualties and civilian residents within the range of the Hamas rockets. With unilateral, fragile ceasefires in place, things have been relatively quiet since then. Also in this interceding time Israel has held elections, whose outcome may change the direction of Israeli policy.

Israel is a parliamentary system with 120 total seats in its Knesset (Parliament). The prime minister is chosen by the president, usually from the party with the greatest number of seats. The election resulted in 28 seats for Kadima, the centrist party headed by current Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, 27 seats for the hawkish Likud party headed by former Prime Minister Binyamin "Bibi" Netanyahu, 15 seats for the far-right, ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu — literally, "Israel, Our Home" — headed by Avigdor Lieberman, and 11 seats for the formerly strong Labor Party, headed by current Defense Minister Ehud Barak. With such a close showing for Kadima and Likud, the determining factor for Shimon Peres, Israel's current president, in tapping the next prime minister, is who will be most likely to form a coalition. Lieberman has become the "kingmaker," because the support that his Yisrael Beiteinu party can give determines Israel's prime minister. For a few days, it was undecided who he would back, but not surprisingly, he pledged to join Likud in forming a coalition leading President Peres to tap Netanyahu as prime minister. The process of forming a coalition is ongoing, and Netanyahu is also in talks with Livni about the possibility of a including Kadima in the government.

Whatever the final outcome, it is certain that Lieberman and his party will have more influence in Israeli politics than ever before. This is what worries me. Lieberman's goal is to increase the number of Jews in Israel and decrease the number of Arabs. In early January Lieberman led the drive in Israel's Central Election Committee to have Arab political parties banned from running in the most recent election, which passed successfully and was overturned only by the Israeli Supreme Court. He has called for the expulsion of Arab members of the Knesset, threatening them that "a new administration will be established and then we will take care of you," as reported by Israel's Ha'aretz newspaper in October 2008. He has called for Arab citizens of Israel to sign an "oath of loyalty" to the state or be stripped of their citizenship. His party has also been very clear about what being "loyal" means: According to his party's Web site, if you are an Arab student and dare come to school wearing a kaffiyeh, you are "disloyal." His Web site also says that if you are a Muslim Israeli and collect money and medicines for Gaza relief, you are "disloyal."

What's worse than all of these discriminatory positions is that leading members of the American Jewish Community support him! Head of the Anti-Defamation League, an organization that is quick to spot instances of discrimination, Abe Foxman, says Lieberman is right to be concerned about apparent acts of disloyalty by Israeli Arabs. Foxman promised to speak out if Lieberman advanced any legislative proposals not in keeping with the spirit of Israeli democracy, though there was no comment by the ADL at Lieberman's unconstitutional attempt to remove Arab parties for Israel's government — a move that was anything but democratic. Another leader in the American Jewish Community, President of the Zionist Organization of America Morton Klein, said he found Lieberman's proposal "legitimate." This is strange, because Acting Co-executive Director of the American Jewish Congress Marc Stern noted American Jews historically have been skeptical of or against loyalty oaths because of their use as part of a nationalist agenda, which often leads to or is associated with discrimination.

Lieberman's discriminatory policies and Netanyahu's desire to expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank while not talking with Palestinians about a long-term peace plan are a dynamite combination that does not bode well for the future of the peace process. While I am proud of my government in the United States, I am utterly disappointed by Israel's new government. I can only hope that this right-wing government will fail and that a moderate, peace-building government will come to power in the near future. Until then, I pray for the safety of all Israelis and Palestinians, and I look forward to a time when I can be as proud of Israel's government as I am of mine.


Avi Smolen

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