'Lieberman isn't racist, Hamas is'

Israeli Beiteinu supporters make final election day push at polling stations in Ashkelon, Ashdod.

elections2009_248 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Heavy rains did little to dampen Avigdor Lieberman's fighting spirit on Tuesday, as the Israel Beiteinu leader, trailed by his closest staff, visited party offices in its strongholds of Ashkelon, Ashdod, Rishon Lezion and Bat Yam for a final election-day push. The controversial politician was aiming to rally activists who were working through the day to get out the vote. Inside the Rishon Lezion office, party members worked from a computerized database, calling supporters to make certain they were going to the polls. The atmosphere was one of tense excitement. Outside, about a dozen activists, half of them under 18, lingered outside wearing T-shirts covered in party slogans. They were outnumbered by the cameramen and reporters who crowded in as Lieberman walked through the front entrance. One man, municipality worker Eli Yakubi, shook Lieberman's hand and congratulated him, turning to anyone who would listen to explain why Israel Beitenu's message resonated with him. "Lieberman is saying something my father used to say," Yakubi related. "The old-timers used to say it too - 'I understand Arabic' - meaning that they know how to deal with the Arabs in a language they understand." He added that people had stopped saying this in public. "There was a time when we would give up every time the Arabs made trouble," he said. "That's over now, and we're going to take a tougher line with them." Speaking to one television camera, 16-year-old Veronica, sporting a Lieberman election T-shirt, insisted that "Lieberman isn't racist, Hamas is racist." After the visit to the Rishon headquarters, Lieberman and his entourage turned to a small restaurant on a nearby boardwalk for lunch. While they sat inside, taking a much-needed break from the hectic day, a loud debate developed among passers-by outside, revealing in microcosm the national debate sparked by Israel Beitenu's unapologetic campaign demanding loyalty from the Arab minority. "Lieberman won't do anything except violate people's civil rights," one man shouted at the gaggle of Lieberman supporters in T-shirts outside the restaurant. "He'll cause riots and death and turn the Arab villages [of the Galilee] into another Gaza," he insisted, above the embarrassed shushing of his wife. "Aw, give him a chance," came a rejoinder from a middle-aged man as a small crowd gathered. "It's enough that he gets the terrorists out of the Knesset. I want to see in Russia or America outright traitors like that in parliament." Asked about Azmi Bishara, the fugitive Arab MK who fled the country to avoid arrest for alleged espionage on behalf of Hizbullah, the first man urged Israelis "to punish the traitors, but not lump all the Arabs into one group." He was outnumbered by Lieberman sympathizers though. "It's about time somebody said it the way it is," said another man. "We have to swallow so much frustration from those bastards in the Knesset. They take our democracy and use it to destroy us." While he insisted he was not voting for Israel Beitenu, he said he understood people who were. "It's disgusting to require loyalty for civil rights," he said. "Who decides what loyalty is? But the [Arab MKs] in the Knesset are bigots. When you have so much pressure on this country and people getting nuclear bombs so they can wipe us out, it's not surprising regular people in the street respond this way to the Arabs' refusal to recognize that the Jews have a right to a state." While Lieberman was visiting the party's branch offices to encourage activists, aspiring Israel Beitenu MKs also traveled around the country to push for votes. With polls showing an unprecedented 16 seats for a party once considered on the fringe of right-wing politics, the candidates expressed cautious optimism. "There's a good feeling on the campaign. Everywhere we are visiting today, we're being received well," said Danny Ayalon, a former ambassador to the US and No. 7 on the party list. "We shouldn't talk too much until we've counted the votes," cautioned MK Sofa Landver, No. 5, "but we feel good about this." "The atmosphere is quiet; you almost don't feel that elections are taking place," said No. 2 Uzi Landau. "We feel a strong wind at our backs, so we are optimistic. Of course, optimism requires hard work to make it happen."