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As Israel Beiteinu looks set for a massive electoral gain in Tuesday's elections, its platform is getting increased scrutiny at home and abroad. Called "racist" and "fascist" by many, it argues it is a liberal party that is simply dealing head-on with the difficult realities of Israel's situation.
In a sense, the party founded in 1999 by Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu's former chief-of-staff Avigdor Lieberman fulfills the expectations of a far-Right party. Its rhetoric is unapologetic, while its platform demands "loyalty" and "allegiance" to Israel and to the country's Jewish character from all citizens, including minorities.
But that easy categorization becomes murky on the question of peace negotiations. The party accepts the need for a Palestinian state on the classic formulation of "two states for two peoples," but wants the Israeli Arab minority included in Palestine, even at the price of making Palestine larger by exchanging the Arab-inhabited parts of Israel for the Jewish-inhabited parts of the West Bank. This has been called "gerrymandering" by the party's critics, and the classic notion of partition along ethnic lines by its friends.
The more one reads - the platform even calls for European Union membership - the more difficult it is to apply the tried-and-true labels of Israeli politics to a party that may be the third-largest in the Knesset by Tuesday night.
For one thing, the idea of exchanging sovereignty is not necessarily illegal or immoral, according to former Meretz MK and cabinet minister Prof. Amnon Rubinstein, an Israel Prize winner and renowned author of the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Freedom.
"Legally, under certain conditions, it is possible" to trade sovereignty and citizenship on Israel Beiteinu's model, he says with care. "Dozens of examples exist for this, and it is nothing like transferring populations or gerrymandering."
The conditions under Israeli law are clear enough.
"First, there has to be an agreement with another state - Palestine - to accept the land," Rubinstein says. "Second, [when it happened elsewhere,] the population always agreed to the exchange. And third, you have to preserve the economic rights of the population, including in national insurance stipends. They can't be harmed economically by the change of sovereignty."
What of the party's chief demand during the campaign - that citizens sign an oath of loyalty to keep their citizenship?
Rubinstein is far less favorable toward that idea.
"I don't know of any country on earth that demands loyalty oaths from people who are already citizens," he says. "Of course, it's a good idea to administer this to immigrants" - Rubinstein recommended as much in 2006 as chairman of a blue-ribbon committee appointed by Interior Minister Ophir Paz-Pines - "but it is very problematic to apply it to those who are already citizens."
Rubinstein is no Israel Beiteinu voter. However, the problem with the party's basic positions is not legal, he says, but political.
"Lieberman wants to worsen the relationship between the Jews and Arabs in order to achieve some kind of confrontation," Rubinstein believes. "It is true that the Arab leadership makes extreme statements [against Israel], and it should be called to task for them. But Lieberman is on the other side pushing toward a confrontation."
So is the party using clever language to cover a latent racism, or is it a mainstream Zionist party taking umbrage at the often-virulent and provocative anti-Israel rhetoric sometimes employed by Israeli Arab leaders?
Uzi Landau, the veteran MK who holds Israel Beiteinu's No. 2 slot, believes Rubinstein's statements show that he is one of the few on the Left who are honest enough to avoid falling into the trap of demonization.
"People like Amnon Rubinstein, along with some others on the liberal end of the spectrum, are interested in an honest, deep debate that shies away from the personal delegitimization we sometimes get in the debate, when we are called 'racists' or 'fascists,'" he said.
Danny Ayalon, a former ambassador to the US who fills the No. 7 slot, also welcomes the approval from a legal authority, but does not want to discuss the question of swapping territory.
"That would only happen in a final-status agreement with the Palestinians," he says.
Despite the noise the idea has caused in Israel and abroad, he adds, "right now it is extremely theoretical because there's no chance of arriving at a final-status agreement in the near future. We don't know what Israeli Arabs will say [once an agreement is signed]."
For Landau, the loyalty oath, too, should be discussed in a level-headed conversation.
"The principle is agreed upon by most people: a Jewish and democratic state with universal rights and a universal responsibility to serve in the military or national service," he says. "That's the principle and it's as true for Israel as for every other country in the world. If you deny the Jews the right to this self-determination, a right every other nation has, you are the racist."
The disagreement arises in the question of implementation, Landau says, adding that many feel the principle is correct but the "mechanism for achieving it" is extreme.
"There's no argument about applying the oath to immigrants," he continues, "but can you go another step and apply it to those applying for jobs in government service? What about those who publicly declare that they side with our mortal enemies, like Azmi Bishara?" he concludes, referring to the former MK who fled Israel to avoid arrest on charges of spying for Hizbullah.
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