'Lieberman weakens Israel's cause in US'

American Jews fear Israel Beiteinu head's prominence could do damage to Israel's image.

Lieberman makes point 224 88 aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi [file])
Lieberman makes point 224 88 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi [file])
Former administration officials and American Jewish leaders are warning that the rise of Avigdor Lieberman could hurt Israel's image in the US, particularly if he is given a top portfolio or his positions on Israeli Arabs become government policy. Daniel Kurtzer, who served as America's ambassador to Israel under the Bush administration from 2001 to 2005, said Lieberman's prominence has already weakened Israel's case internationally. "There's no question it does," he said. "If on the one hand Israel expects the discourse from Arab countries to be within reasonable bounds it should also expect that its own politicians' be within bounds, and Lieberman's hasn't been within bounds." Lieberman's rhetoric concerning Arabs, Kurtzer said, "becomes an argument that other countries use that traditionally Israel uses against other countries." Jon Alterman, who worked in the US State Department's Near Eastern Affairs bureau, said that in a worst-case scenario, Lieberman could be perceived as a "harbinger" of a coming division between Israelis and Americans, since until now so much of the strong relationship between the two countries has been based on a sense of shared democratic values. Lieberman's attitudes, Alterman said, "could change the way some Americans think about Israel and the Israeli government, and that could change the relationship." Rabbi David Saperstein, who heads the Reform Movement's Washington-based Religious Action Center, pointed to the same concern, though both he and Alterman said that scenario was unlikely since Lieberman's role in the next government could still be limited. Still, Saperstein noted that the leader of Israel Beiteinu - whose views he calls "profoundly troubling both morally and practically" - was a frequent topic of conversation. "Almost everyone asks about Lieberman, wanting to understand more about him and what it means," he said, referring to recent conversations he's had with members of Congress, fellow religious leaders and friends in the Jewish community. Though Lieberman's agenda includes centrist positions such as pushing for civil marriage and potentially dividing Jerusalem, he's famous for his incendiary rhetoric. He has threatened to bomb Egypt and Iran as well as questioned Israeli Arabs' loyalty in ways some consider racist. He campaigned on a policy requiring Israelis to take a loyalty oath in what many felt was a desire to stigmatize Arab citizens, and his formulas for creating a Palestinian state aims to cut many Arabs areas, including Jerusalem neighborhoods, out of Israel. Still, Kurtzer said what would matter most to American officials was the composition of the new government and the coalition agreements laying out policy, rather than campaign statements. "They would want to give the new ministers - if he becomes a minister - the benefit of the doubt," he said. "Both governments are going to try very, very hard to have a good start, to build a basis for good relations." "The reaction would come from statements when he's in government or actions when he's in government, rather than statements on the campaign trail," said Alterman, who now heads the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Middle East Program. He added that Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu would be wise to take Lieberman's statements into account when negotiating with his party over joining the coalition. That Lieberman's stances could "trash the US-Israel relationship," Alterman said, "ought to be one of the clubs that's used against Lieberman to beat back his demands for joining a coalition." For now, State Department officials said they were reserving judgment until a coalition was formed. When asked Thursday about the US government's willingness to work with Lieberman, Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg noted that the question was hypothetical, but that with all of Israel's different leaders, "we've always found ways to discuss our differences and try to move forward. I am confident that we will continue to do that." Building a coalition was "ultimately a decision for the Israeli people. It's not our practice to try to dictate that to others," Steinberg said. Meanwhile, Netanyahu's aides have been trying to make clear that the Likud leader - who is most likely to be the next prime minister - rejects Lieberman's policies toward Arabs. While they point out that he has acted moderately in many cases and has a more sophisticated platform than has been presented, they also distance themselves from his controversial positions. "He has a very clear commitment, as does the Likud, to civil rights and equality for all of Israel's citizens, including Israeli Arabs," senior adviser Ron Dermer said during a conference call with the United Jewish Communities and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs after one American UJC member expressed concern about Lieberman's "racist" language. It's a concern shared by American Jewish organizations on both the Right and Left. "His provocative image has ramifications that go beyond Jewish-Arab issues in Israel," said Americans for Peace Now spokesman Ori Nir. "We're [against] the inclusion of such a red flag in the government, both because of the message he sends and the potential he has of igniting fires because of his public statements." Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, told The Jerusalem Post last week that Lieberman's "image is so tarnished, it wouldn't be good for Israel" to have him in a prominent leadership position. But one Jewish organizational leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity, made the case that Lieberman was actually less "radioactive" than Ariel Sharon, who was held responsible for 1982's Sabra and Shatila massacre, once was in international circles, yet the latter successfully rehabilitated his image. He also pointed out that Lieberman has served in the government already, joining Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's Kadima-led coalition in 2006 before quitting last year over peace talks. Another long-time pro-Israel activist, though, argued that the climate in both Israel and Washington was different from what it was when Lieberman was in government from October 2006 through January 2008. For starters, it was now the Democratic, biracial leader Barack Obama who headed the US government. "Bibi [Netanyahu] is very aware of the atmosphere, of the weather in Washington," the activist pointed out, asking of Lieberman's rhetoric: "How does it play in an Obama-era United States when inclusion and multiculturalism is the order of the day? How does it jibe with an Israeli government that's right-of-center, with a figure who is at least perceived as totally reactionary, semi-fascist, racist? "It's terrible. It plays so badly, not only in terms of PR, but the attempts the prime minister makes to set a tone with Washington. I don't think Bibi wants to carry the weight on his back of what Lieberman stands for." He also pointed out that Lieberman, who once worked for Netanyahu, was perceived as ideologically closer to the party that was likely to lead the next government - the Likud - than he was to Kadima under Olmert, and that Israel Beiteinu - now the third-largest party - was seen as more reflective of Israeli popular sentiment than it was in the past. During that time, Israel Beiteinu had become more extreme, he said. "The Lieberman of two years ago is not the Lieberman of today, because his campaign was so divisive and so racist in its nature." At the same time, Lieberman's success is coming in a different environment in Israel, when swaths of the Arab minority have been seen sympathizing with Hamas - holding demonstrations and flying Hamas flags - during a time of war. The effect has been to alienate, and frighten, many Jewish Israelis. "What he's saying might be true," said one American Jewish leader, "but it's not the face we who are pushing for a strong US-Israel relationship and a positive attitude toward Israel in the American press want to put forward. It's bad for PR." He described Lieberman's attitudes as "running against the narrative that Jews are trying the best they can to get along with the Arabs, and the Arabs are the ones that have the problem." He said that discomfort could be translated into a general shunning of Lieberman by American Jews should he join the next government - making a high-profile post like foreign minister particularly hard to stomach, and stage-manage - as what he represented went against many of the core efforts of American Jewish organizations. For instance, 80 such groups joined together in recent years to form the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues, to do coexistence work and improve socioeconomic conditions for the minority sector. "Regardless of any political rhetoric during the general elections, Jews and Arabs will be neighbors for the foreseeable future, and anything we can do to promote a peaceful, productive relationship between Jews and Arabs is a worthy goal," said William Daroff, Washington director of the UJC, one of the main sponsors of the task force, indicating that Lieberman's rise wouldn't affect the work of the project. Another American Jewish official, also speaking anonymously, pointed out that there were some positive areas for cooperation between Lieberman and American groups, since Israel Beiteinu staunchly favored civil marriage, which would break the Orthodox monopoly on marriage in Israel and which many Reform and Conservative American Jews support. "On the positive side, [Shas] Rabbi Ovadia Yosef called him Satan, because he's a supporter of civil marriage," he said, "so there are some church-state issues that many American liberal Jews would find some synergy with."