Lieberman as FM has everyone in DC talking

ZOA head Morton Klein: Israel Beiteinu leader "falsely demonized as an extreme right-winger."

March 18, 2009 22:00
Lieberman as FM has everyone in DC talking

lieberman headshot 248 88 aj. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

News that Avigdor Lieberman is slated to become Israel's next foreign minister has received a chilly greeting from some on Capitol Hill, with sources dismayed by his selection saying it could dampen the enthusiastic support Israel has historically received in Congress. Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu signed a coalition deal late Monday giving the foreign ministry to the Israel Beiteinu party head, whose rhetoric on Israeli Arabs is viewed by many Americans as racist. During the campaign, Lieberman called for citizens to take a loyalty oath, supported incorporating many Israeli Arab towns into a future Palestinian state and pressed for civil marriage, a major concern for many of the Russian immigrants who make up his key supporters. "I think a lot of people are not going to be able to ignore the fact that under the foreign minister is a vicious, ugly bigot. That's going to make things hard," said a Congressional staffer. He predicted that this perception would complicate Lieberman's outreach efforts in Washington: "Members will be less interested in being seen with him or hearing his views." "There's a danger that it makes the broad-based support that Israel has always enjoyed in the US Congress more difficult to hold together," said another Democratic Congressional staffer. "There's concern about him, even among the very pro-Israeli lawmakers." He described the "polarizing effect" of his statements as causing headaches for members who want to be supportive of Israel but could find themselves unable to defend his positions. "It gives more cover to those who do not necessarily come to foreign policy with a pro-Israel perspective," the staffer explained. "It gives them the political space to make comments they would not make otherwise and advocate policy they would not advocate otherwise." He added that Congress would still be inclined to sponsor resolutions supporting Israel and provide military aid, but that Lieberman's presence would creep into the debate on a two-state solution in a way that would not advance Israel's cause. The other aide also said that the US-Israel relationship went too deep to be dependent on the personalities of the countries' leaders. "I don't think Lieberman or his party are of sufficient significance to the relationship as to put it in any kind of serious danger," he said. But he added, "The idea that you have an Israeli foreign minister who has views on Israel's Arab citizens which are incompatible with American values, I think it's going to make it awkward." But a Congressional aide who works on Middle East issues said that members were still waiting to find out more about him and the policies of the new government, which hasn't yet been officially formed. He noted that perceptions could be wrong, as was the case when Ariel Sharon became prime minister. "When Ariel Sharon come into power in 2001, it was like, 'Oh my God, it's going to change the whole US-Israel paradigm,'" he said of the reaction at the time, which then transformed into respect for a "moderate" who made concessions no one expected. "If he is someone who is serious and someone who can really reach out," he said, that could make a difference for his relationship with US political leaders. Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi of The Israel Project, which advocates for strong US-Israel relations, stressed the importance of people learning more about Lieberman before making any judgments. "Most people don't know that he supports a two-state solution and that he's very moderate on a lot of issues, and supports the rights of atheists and civil marriage," she said. And Morton Klein, head of the Zionist Organization of America, said he believed Lieberman was less radical than he had been portrayed in the press and had been "falsely demonized as an extreme right-winger" and "tainted because of his outspoken concern over the Israeli Arabs as being disloyal." Klein said Lieberman presented a more restrained position when he met recently with a delegation of American Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. "He was very careful, he didn't make any controversial comments and I assume that if he undertakes this very important post as foreign minister, he'll be different as foreign minister than as a candidate," Klein told The Jerusalem Post. "It's very common with politicians, and I believe it will be the case with Lieberman also," Klein said. He rejected the notion of Lieberman as a pariah, and claimed the views of American Jews had drifted rightward in recent years. "The concerns that Lieberman espouses are not that far from many American Jews - his views are not that far away, he espouses the fact that Palestinians are not for peace," Klein said. Other American Jewish leaders have expressed more criticism about his selection, however. "What Avigdor Lieberman stands for is at odds with what it means to be Jewish, in my opinion, and what it means to be democratic, in my opinion," said Jeremy Ben Ami, head of the left-wing lobby J Street, at a panel on US politics held in New York Monday. Journalist Michelle Goldberg said she believed a governing coalition that included Lieberman would be seen as a "pariah government" - but noted that people opposed to the Bush administration in the past eight years had been able to distinguish their opposition to the government from their support for America itself. "It seems just as simple to me that you can be horrified by Netanyahu, and even more horrified by Lieberman, and still be pro-Zionist," Goldberg said. "I think it's possible that people in Israel would not elect such figures if they thought there would be a price to pay in terms of American support," she added. Eric Alterman, another journalist who is on the advisory board of J Street said Lieberman was "bad for everybody." "If the Israelis want to elect a bad government, they can, just the way the Palestinians elected a bad government with Hamas," Alterman said. "If the Israelis have made a terrible mistake, as many countries have, I'll say, 'I'm not going there with you guys.'" But American Jewish organizations, including those on the left, acknowledge they will have to find ways to deal with whatever coalition is put in place. "We have to figure out how to deal with and relate to a government with [Lieberman] in it," said said Steve Gutow, head of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. "Those of us who are pro-peace and pro-Israel have to deal with the government." Lieberman comes in with what is said to be a good grasp of English, for starters, a skill not all Israeli politicians have possessed. Sources who have heard Lieberman speak English on many occasions said his command of the language was not problematic and was at least of the level of his predecessor as foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, but nowhere near the level of Netanyahu. Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.

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