Critical Currents: Legitimizing the illegitimate

Labor has forfeited the right to speak in the name of democratic and peace-seeking Israelis

November 2, 2006 13:54
4 minute read.
naomi chazan portrait 88

naomi chazan 88. (photo credit: )


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The swearing-in of Avigdor Lieberman as deputy prime minister responsible for strategic affairs constitutes a severe, potentially irreversible, blow to Israel's already fragile democracy. The danger lies both in what he might do in his sensitive position and in what his controversial appointment represents - a bigoted, ethnocentric, dictatorial worldview fundamentally at odds with the humanistic values enshrined in Israel's Declaration of Independence. Those responsible for his incorporation into the coalition - especially Ehud Olmert and the majority of the Labor Party - have colluded in bringing the dark side of Israel to center stage. The legitimation of Avigdor Lieberman - never one to hide his opinions - is a brazen act of political expediency that can only work to Israel's detriment. Long an advocate of the transfer of Arabs from Israel, he has now become the main voice for their forcible exclusion from the state. If his ideological precursor, Meir Kahane, jolted the country in 1984 when he went to Umm el-Fahm to cajole its residents to leave the country voluntarily, Lieberman's call to simply transfer the entire city and its population to the Palestinian Authority without their consent has been greeted with troubling equanimity. He and his party, Israel Beiteinu, have spearheaded numerous campaigns against Arabs in general and the Palestinian citizens of Israel in particular. Most recently, he branded anyone meeting with Hamas a traitor and advocated their public prosecution in a latter-day version of the Nuremberg trials. The intolerable debasement of the Holocaust implicit in this proposal is only outdone by the unspeakable branding of Israeli Arabs as a group. LIEBERMAN'S IDEAS come as no surprise - his commitment to the democratic ethos is, at best, opportunistic. His bill to transform Israel into a presidential system, if passed, would effectively create a strongman system of government devoid of even the most minimal checks and balances. A small indication of this political style is evident in his iron-fist management of his party: he not only singlehandedly dictated its composition and rigid platform, but now controls its every move. He obviously and unabashedly admires the Putin model. There is thus a close correlation between the precepts and the comportment of the new strategy czar. Lieberman is extremely intelligent, coldly calculating, and undeniably efficient. He is also a self-confessed bully. In a 2001 plea-bargain he admitted striking a minor and was fined accordingly. His public demeanor, however pragmatic, leaves little room for dissent. NONE OF these troubling views and attributes was concealed from those who decided to bring Israel Beiteinu into the government this week. Their conscious decision to do so is as cynical as it is self-serving. The claim of some Labor Party ministers that the perpetuation of the Olmert government is necessary to prevent a right-wing takeover, or that there is nothing new in sitting with Lieberman (he was a cabinet member during the Sharon era) rings hollow under present circumstances. Especially revolting is the arrogant assertion that Labor must remain in the government in order to contain Lieberman's excesses. These transparent rationalizations only magnify the unbridled desire of insecure politicians to hold on to power at all cost. They also underline Labor's intrinsic distaste for the opposition - the pillar of democracy and the source of viable political alternatives. Its leaders see nothing untoward in saving their seats while bringing the house down. They have thereby forfeited the right to speak in the name of democratic and peace-seeking Israelis. What has enabled, in a matter of two decades, the official embrace of the untenable? What has made it possible to sanction what in the past was unthinkable? What has precipitated the unraveling of the country's moral fabric? In broad strokes, the occupation of another people, and with it the continuation of the conflict and the loss of hope in the possibility of its resolution, play a cumulative role. The ideology of unilateralism paved the way for the disregard of the other; its collapse after the second Lebanon war has entrenched its exclusivist demographic underpinnings. The consuming preoccupation with ongoing external threats has provided an all-too-facile excuse for the systematic curtailment of human rights and civil liberties. It has expedited the erosion of social solidarity, fostered unfettered capitalism, and contributed to rising personal violence. The flouting of the rule of law, especially by people in high office, has further exacerbated these worrisome trends. Sadly, an ethical numbness has set in. It may be easier to grant respectability to the secular and worldly Avigdor Lieberman than to his messianic and narrow-minded fellow travelers. The results are nevertheless the same. Israel stands to live with their xenophobic and destructive repercussions. It might find itself shunned internationally (just as Austria was following the election of Georg Haider). Jews throughout the world will inevitably suffer the consequences. And the strategic threats facing the country will, in all probability, grow. The real problem will remain, however, the loss of the country's moral compass. With the approval of Avigdor Lieberman's appointment, Israel has not only crossed a red line, it has constructed an enormous ethical barrier with its own hands. At issue is not the political elevation of one particular individual, but the official recognition of a worldview which is antithetical to the Jewish and universal values of tolerance, pluralism, equality, and justice. Only a vigorous and comprehensive effort to recapture these essential principles can stem this dangerous tide.

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