Analyze This: Lieberman left the building - but his party is far from homeless

Lieberman left the building - but his party is far from homeless.

Lieberman makes point 224 88 aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi [file])
Lieberman makes point 224 88 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi [file])
To paraphrase Shakespeare on Avigdor Lieberman's resignation from the cabinet: Nothing in his time in government became him like the leaving it. The comment is not meant to be cynical. The outgoing strategic affairs minister may not have much to show in the way of accomplishments for his year in office, but Israel Beiteinu's departure from the coalition was accomplished with a minimum of the Sturm und Drang that usually accompanies such maneuvers, and Lieberman probably earned brownie points even beyond his circle of supporters for the way in which it was done. Early on, he set clear "red lines" for his party's resignation from the government - they would leave as soon as negotiations with the Palestinians began to touch on "core issues" - and sure enough, he kept to that promise without any qualification. At the Israel Beiteinu press conference Wednesday, Lieberman kept his comments focused on the matter at hand, and refrained from personal attacks on his former coalition partners, including the prime minister, displaying a political maturity that should be acknowledged. He did have harsh words for such Arab MKs as Ahmed Tibi and Muhammad Barakei, calling them worse than the leaders of Hamas and Hizbullah because "they are working systemically from within to destroy Israel as a Jewish and a Zionist state." Barakei shot back that Lieberman suffers from "racist HIV." But he is wrong - as are Lieberman's Jewish critics - in believing they can still dismiss him or his arguments simply by trotting out the "racist" label. After having served in a relatively responsible manner in two centrist governments, Israel Beiteinu has now distinguished itself from other fringe parties previously labeled as racist, such as Meir Kahane's Kach movement or Rehavam Ze'evi's Moledet, and even from more veteran right-wing factions such as the National Religious Party. Lieberman, as demonstrated by the 11 seats his party received in March 2006, has successfully steered his movement - at least in the eyes of a significant part of the Israeli public - beyond the far-right Russian-immigrant image it had at its founding nine years ago, to a position more in the mainstream "security" Right alongside - or in competition with - the Likud. One reason for his success was evident to those who took the trouble to listen to the points he made, more cogently than usual, in discussing his opposition to Israel's current peace negotiations. Lieberman reiterated his claim that, in principle, he is not opposed to a two-state solution, a position many in the Likud are not prepared to concede. But he again declared his opposition to any "land for peace" deal based on the 1949 Armistice Lines that leaves within the final borders of a self-declared Jewish state an Arab population that defines itself primarily as Palestinian. "We find the entire principle of territories for peace wrong. It should be about the exchange of both territories and populations... Our problem is not Judea and Samaria, but the fanatic [Arab] leadership in the Knesset. Israeli Arabs will seek Palestinian citizenship and keep collecting their social security benefits from the State of Israel... They come right out and say 'We will not recognize Israel as a Jewish state and we want autonomy in the Negev and Galilee.' That's what will happen if we go back to the borders of '67," he said. There are several ways the concerns Lieberman raise can be answered. After all, many democracies contain ethnic or nationalistic minorities, who have a right to express themselves, and even to ask for autonomy, provided it is done legally and peacefully. Many people around the world hold multiple citizenships, including those of neighboring nations, but this is a problem only if those states are in conflict, or have lingering border disputes. But is anyone in Israel, at least on the political level, really addressing these issues with any seriousness? Does anyone actually question that the scenario Lieberman describes could well be valid, especially if we come closer to a final-status agreement? If the present Israeli-Arab leadership is so opposed to living in a Jewish state in any form, even if they would enjoy the same civil rights as ethnic minorities in other democracies, shouldn't this issue be discussed seriously before permanently dividing the territory between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River? After all, it is not as if Lieberman is raising issues not now on the table in other territorial disputes where borders are being redrawn along ethnic/religious lines. One has to only look at the efforts still being made with the remains of the former Yugoslavia, or even in Iraq, where dividing the country along Sunni, Shi'ite and Kurdish lines is more and more being seen as the most humane solution to the conflicts there. Of course, there are more civilized alternatives to the territorial and population exchanges suggested by Lieberman. It would certainly help, for instance, if Israel could draft a constitution that provided more clarity to its self-definition as a democratic Jewish state, and secured in constitutional law the rights both of its majority and of its minorities. But simply dismissing Israel Beiteinu's platform as "racist" must be recognized, especially by its opponents, as an option that's no longer viable, if only on a practical level. This is especially so because Lieberman is surely right that the question of the political status of the Israeli Arab community will only become more acute - not less - as we move closer to a two-state solution. Israel Beiteinu emerged stronger in the polls after leaving the previous government over a matter of principle. Avigdor Lieberman may well come out of this week as a stronger force outside of the coalition than he ever was within it.