Bulldozer at the Helm

Legitimate reformer or potential tyrant? Why did one out of every eight Israeli citizens vote for Avigdor Lieberman?

02yvet224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimzki)
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimzki)
Cover story in Issue 2, May 11, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. In mid-April, just two weeks after Avigdor Lieberman was sworn in as Israel's foreign minister, his Egyptian counterpart declared him persona non grata. The hawkish leader of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party had more than once threatened to bomb the Aswan dam and six months ago declared in the Knesset that if Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak didn't want to visit Israel, he could "go to hell." This is not the kind of talk the Egyptians, with their proud tradition of regional leadership, could take lying down or pretend to forget. Pointing slowly to his head and then to his mouth, Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit admonished Lieberman for having been so brash. "When a man speaks, he should be aware that the words traveling from his brain to his tongue will have consequences," he declared. Egypt, he said, would continue to work with the new Israeli government, but not with its foreign minister. Lieberman's top aides, however, are convinced the foreign minister will not be circumvented. For the past several weeks, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, has been operating assiduously behind the scenes to establish a smooth working relationship with the Egyptians. Ayalon, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington and a leading member of the mainly Russian immigrant Yisrael Beiteinu, is Lieberman's closest adviser in foreign affairs. He is confident the new foreign minister's Egypt imbroglio will soon be resolved. "It won't be a problem," he tells The Report. But the very fact that so much energy is being invested just to get Israel's most important peace partner to deign to work with Lieberman underscores the bizarre nature of the new government's choice of foreign minister. The appointment raised hackles and eyebrows not only in the Arab world but across the international community. Lieberman, who on his first day in office rejected the American-sponsored Annapolis peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, and who has said he wouldn't mind drowning released Palestinian prisoners or hanging disloyal Israeli Arab Knesset members, is widely seen as extremist, provocative and even racist, along the lines of ostracized European ultranationalists like the late Jorg Haider in Austria or Jean-Marie Le Pen in France. Add to that the fact that he is under investigation for money laundering, fraud and breach of trust, and that in 2001 he was found guilty by his own admission of striking a 12 year-old boy - and the appointment does seem bizarre, indeed. One of the biggest problems in making Lieberman Israel's face to the outside world is that it plays into the hands of its detractors. With Israel's image after the Gaza war under a cloud, having the swaggering, tough-talking Lieberman in the foreign ministry makes it easier to portray Israel as the neighborhood bully. "Internationally, the appointment is causing Israel irreversible harm. Other countries will soon join Egypt in declaring Israel's foreign minister persona non grata. There is nothing more dangerous than this for Israel," says former Knesset member Roman Bronfman, founder of a rival dovish, but now defunct, Russian immigrant party, The Democratic Choice. So why did Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appoint as controversial a figure as Lieberman foreign minister? Supporters of the move point to Lieberman's out-of-the-box thinking and say he could be just the man to find a way out of the current diplomatic morass. Critics, however, say the only reason for the appointment was the fact that politically Lieberman had Netanyahu over a barrel: With 15 seats, Yisrael Beiteinu is the only coalition partner that could bring the ruling Likud's 74-member coalition down on its own. If Lieberman were to pull out of the government for any reason, Netanyahu would be left with a minority of 59 in the 120-member Knesset, whereas if the next largest coalition faction, Ehud Barak's Labor, were to leave, Netanyahu would still have a majority of 61. The controversial appointment aside, the problems posed for Israel by Lieberman's rise to prominence go well beyond foreign affairs. His election campaign, with its slogan "only Lieberman understands Arabic," contained overtly racist elements, and critics say that this, together with his calls for a stronger executive and weaker Supreme Court, his conditioning of citizenship on manifestations of loyalty and his control of law enforcement centers when he himself is under investigation, constitute a serious threat to Israeli democracy. "If established parties keep quiet in the face of Lieberman's political racism, and the president doesn't find it necessary to intervene, and the courts don't disqualify a racist Knesset list, the cancer will spread," Bronfman warns. Avigdor Lieberman was born in Soviet Moldova in 1958, and made aliya with his parents when he was 20. As a student at the Hebrew University in the late 1970s, where he majored in international relations and Russian studies, Lieberman already showed staunch right-wing leanings, bordering on the racist. He was active in the Likud-linked Kastel students' party, led by young Likud hawks, Tzachi Hanegbi (today a leading member of Kadima) and Yisrael Katz (today Minister of Transportation and a member of Netanyahu's inner circle). Hanegbi, then head of the students' union, gave Lieberman a job as bouncer at the Shablul students' night club, where, within a year, the burly new immigrant became the manager. The big political issue of the day was whether Arab students should be compelled to participate along with their Jewish colleagues in civil guard patrols against would-be terrorists. Lieberman was for summarily kicking them out of the campus dorms if they refused. His approach then was very similar to his controversial insistence today on conditioning state-sponsored income supplements to Arab-Israelis on national service and citizenship on loyalty to the state. Lieberman's first big political break came in 1988, when he hitched himself to Netanyahu's rising star. In 1993, he masterminded Netanyahu's campaign for the Likud leadership and was rewarded by being made party CEO. Then, when Netanyahu became prime minister in 1996, he appointed Lieberman director general of the prime minister's office. Not long afterwards, under pressure from party veterans who disparagingly called him "KGB" and "Rasputin," Lieberman was abandoned by Netanyahu and forced to resign. In 1999, he left Likud to found Yisrael Beiteinu, then a hawkish immigrants' rights party. In 2000, he linked up with the far-right Moledet and Tekuma parties to form a radical right-wing Knesset block, and with them won seven seats in the 2003 general election. The remolding of Lieberman as a new-style rightwinger with national leadership pretensions came in mid-2004, when he surprisingly declared his support for the two-state model, Israel and Palestine, leading to a break with Moledet and Tekuma. But he also parted ways with then prime minister Ariel Sharon over the planned disengagement from Gaza, arguing that Sharon's core idea of separation between Israelis and Palestinians could only work if Israel was as purely Jewish as Palestine was purely Arab. In late May 2004, Lieberman outlined his "Populated Area Exchange Plan," under which Israeli Arab towns like Umm el-Fahm bordering the West Bank would go to Palestine and West Bank Jewish settlements bordering the Green Line to Israel. The new border would be drawn to reflect a new reality of two almost purely ethnic states, one Jewish and one Arab. In the Jewish state, the remaining Israeli Arabs would have to take a loyalty oath or lose the right to vote, and those who found themselves on the Palestinian side of the border would only be allowed to return within a fixed period and if they swore allegiance. Israeli Arabs were incensed and accused Lieberman of racism. Sharon denounced the plan declaring that, "We regard Israeli Arabs as part of the state of Israel," and in early June fired Lieberman from the government over his criticism of the Gaza disengagement. Lieberman insisted that he was simply taking the separation idea to its logical conclusion, explaining that what he had in mind was the Cyprus model, where in the mid-1970s, subsequent to an invasion by the Turkish army, Cypriot Turks in the south of the island moved to the mainly Turkish northern side and Greeks in the north to the southern Greek side, resulting in two ethnically separate entities and decades of stability and quiet. "I am definitely speaking about exchanging populations and territory simultaneously, because there is no other solution," Lieberman declared in the Knesset in June. Lieberman seems to have benefited both from his opposition to Sharon's disengagement from Gaza - which many Israelis view as a failure because of the Qassam rockets that followed it - and the clarity of his alternative. His rise since setting out on his own has been spectacular. In 1999, Yisrael Beiteinu won only four Knesset seats with 86,153 votes; in 2006 11 seats with 281,880 votes; and in 2009 15 seats with 394,577 votes. In October 2006, with his government tottering after the Second Lebanon War, then prime minister Ehud Olmert brought Lieberman into his coalition as minister for strategic threats, focusing on the Iranian nuclear build-up. The deal gave Olmert a more stable coalition and Lieberman crucial legitimization as a major national player. The appointment sparked speculation about an impending Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear installations, as Lieberman had also talked about bombing Tehran, earning the sobriquet, "Lieberman-Aswan-Tehran." Once in office, he seemed more restrained. He resigned a year later, over the Olmert government's decision to embrace the Annapolis process, and spent the interim period till the 2009 election year building up his electoral base. In his campaign, the new foreign minister depicted himself as a pragmatic problem solver, defining problems and unflinchingly offering direct solutions. If there is terror it must be eradicated by overwhelming force; if government is weak, the executive must be strengthened and the capacity of the Supreme Court to intervene in government business reduced; if there is a demographic problem, it must be solved by putting as many Israeli Arabs as possible on the Palestinian side of the border, and finding ways to deny as many as possible of those who stay on the Israeli side the right to vote. Russian immigrant voters were captivated. Outraged left-wing critics point to what they see as insidious anti-democratic elements in the Lieberman canon: The strongman leader; the fact that in an emergency, the leader would be able to promulgate regulations without cabinet or Knesset approval; the weakening of Supreme Court oversight; intolerance of the other; deciding who is and who isn't a legitimate member of the nation; and legislation against the "disloyal" as the thin end of a wedge that could be used to crush all political opposition. Hebrew University political scientist Zeev Sternhell, Israel's foremost expert on fascism, calls Lieberman "perhaps the most dangerous politician in the history of the state." Others speak of a breath of fresh air, and argue that, unlike many other right-wingers, Lieberman has already recognized that the occupation of the Palestinian territories cannot continue indefinitely and is setting the pace for a legitimate post-occupation right-wing agenda. Its focus will be on: Retaining a Jewish majority in Israel proper through population exchanges; maintaining the Jewish character of the state through a loyalty oath; clipping the wings of an overly activist Supreme Court; strengthening executive power through an American-style presidential system; giving the Jewish and national precedence over the democratic and universal; and in effect deciding who legitimately belongs to the collective and who doesn't. That is, no longer asking, "Who is a Jew?" but rather, "Who can be a citizen?" Ayalon speaks of "legitimate philosophic debate," and calls Lieberman "a great democrat." Legitimate reformer or potential tyrant, how did Lieberman get nearly one in every eight Israeli voters to vote for him in 2009? Of his 15 seats, 10 came from Russian-speaking immigrants from the former USSR and five from veteran Israelis. (He won over 60 percent of the Russian vote, as there were only 16 available Russian seats, not the usual 18, since the Russian turn-out of 57 percent was well below the national average of 64.7 percent.) Lieberman's success is partly a consequence of the Gaza war that preceded the February election by mere weeks. The fighting seemed to underscore the futility of peace talks with the Palestinians from Oslo to Annapolis and the failure of Sharon's unilateral disengagement from Gaza, putting a question mark over left-wing and centrist ideas for accommodation with the Palestinians, and making right-wing calls, like Lieberman's, for the use of even greater force to solve the problem attractive to many voters. The war also heightened Jewish perceptions of Israeli-Arab empathy with the Palestinian side, sparking an anti-Arab Jewish backlash, which Lieberman exploited to the hilt in his anti-Arab "no citizenship without loyalty" campaign. The homing in on the Jewish-Arab divide struck a particularly sensitive chord among Russian voters. For starters, defining the Arab as other gave them a stronger sense of belonging to mainstream Jewish society. Bronfman, an expert on Russian immigrant voting patterns, says much the same thing happened in 2003 when the ultra-secular Shinui party played on the religious-secular divide, winning 15 seats and a solid 26 percent of the Russian immigrant vote. But, says Bronfman, Lieberman's Arab focus cuts right to the bone. "Because the population distribution in the 1990s was left to market forces, many immigrants settled in mixed Jewish-Arab cities, such as Acre, Lod, Ramle, Haifa and Nazareth. Today, in all these cities, you have serious friction between the two outsider populations, the Russian immigrants and the Arabs, which manifests itself on a day to day basis in an almost existential competition for work places, housing and places of study," he observes. Many immigrants from the former USSR, who see themselves as culturally superior to veteran Israelis, are also drawn by Lieberman's in-your-face denigration of the old elites, and his strongman Putin-like demeanor. But will all this be enough to enable him to retain and even build on his immigrant constituency? Bronfman has his doubts. "Past experience shows the Russian immigrant vote tends to be unstable. In 1992 they voted Labor, in 1996 Likud and in 1999 again Labor. The only Israeli leader the Russian immigrants were loyal to over time was Ariel Sharon. So it's hard to say whether the support for Lieberman will last," he says. Other astute observers, however, are convinced Lieberman has built a very solid power base. "All the big national parties, Likud, Labor and Kadima present themselves as national parties with the nation's interests at heart, but actually all have a clear ethnic base. The Likud's is the Sephardim, Labor and its successor Kadima have the Ashkenazim, and Lieberman has managed to do the same thing with the Russian speakers, positioning himself as a major player for the future," says Ben-Gurion University political sociologist Lev Grinberg. Grinberg argues that Lieberman brilliantly further increased the scope of his appeal by appropriating the left's two-state approach to peacemaking with the Palestinians. "The whole Israeli left discourse is based on making peace with the Palestinians, not because they deserve statehood, but because they constitute a demographic threat. And he simply says okay, I will deal with that danger more effectively than they will," Grinberg explains. Indeed, the post-Zionist Grinberg blames the Israeli center-left for helping to create conditions for Lieberman's rise, mainly by legitimizing the politics of force against the Palestinians. "He said only Lieberman understands Arabic, implying that all the Arabs understand is force, and that therefore there is nothing to talk to them about. But who actually acted along those lines? It was the Kadima-Labor government that waged two catastrophic wars that got Israel nowhere," he asserts. Lieberman's most controversial demand - making citizenship dependent on swearing an oath of loyalty and state supplementary income payments contingent on army or other forms of national service - are not explicitly mentioned in the coalition guidelines, and the chances of any such legislation seem extremely remote. Still, Israeli Arabs are concerned. "I think his ultimate goal is to get rid of us. Step by step. First to make our citizenship conditional, then to get rid of us. But we are deeply rooted here and nothing will move us," says Balad Knesset member Jamal Zahalka, who points out that nowhere in the world is the innate right to citizenship of the native born conditional on loyalty oaths or anything else. Zahalka, like other radical Israeli Arab leaders, adamantly refuses to recognize any linkage between their provocative rejection of the Zionist enterprise and Lieberman's rise. And Zahalka, who in October 2007 said Arab society would "vomit out" and treat as lepers those of its young people who volunteered for national service in Israel, denies that the Israeli Arab leadership's increasingly radical messages may have helped spark a pro-Lieberman backlash. "We are the victims," he says, "not the guilty." As for Lieberman's plan to place Umm el-Fahm and other Israeli Arab towns and villages in Palestine, Zahalka says there is no way Israel's Arabs will agree to anything of the kind. "The aim is to weaken the Arabs in Israel. If you say Umm el-Fahm is going to be on the Palestinian side, why invest there, why grant people there rights? It puts a question mark on our citizenship, and we won't stand for it," he declares. The day after he became foreign minister, Lieberman was questioned by police for seven hours. He is suspected of taking bribes from two wealthy businessmen and illegally drawing hundreds of thousands of dollars from a company called M.L. 1, set up by his daughter Michal in 2001. At the time she was only 21, and police believe she was fronting for Lieberman. He is suspected of receiving a salary and severance pay from the company when he was a sitting Knesset Member, which, under Israeli law, is illegal. What worries legal expert Moshe Negbi is the fact that Lieberman, a man under investigation, seems to control, directly and indirectly, a number of key law enforcement posts in the new administration. Negbi, a contributing editor to The Jerusalem Report, points out that in the coalition negotiations with Netanyahu, Lieberman decided who would be minister of internal security (or police) and minister of justice. True, in the Israeli system neither of these two officials has any say in ongoing investigations. But both have a lot of clout in making appointments of people who do. The internal security minister decides on the appointment of police investigators, and the justice minister heads the committee for appointing judges, as well as having a big say in the appointment of the next attorney general, to replace Menahem Mazuz as head of the state prosecution. Mazuz is expected to step down in about six months, and, Negbi says, Lieberman and former prime minister Ehud Olmert may well simply be waiting for a new appointee who will drop the charges against them. "All this is very dangerous for the rule of law," Negbi declares. Negbi adds that David Rotem, the chairman of the Knesset's Law, Constitution and Justice Committee, is also a Yisrael Beiteinu man, and points out that his predecessor, Kadima's Menachem Ben Sasson was instrumental in protecting the Supreme Court and pushing for a full-fledged constitution. In Negbi's view, Rotem's potential impact on both of Ben Sasson's pet projects could be disastrous. "With Rotem as committee chairman, I would rather remain without a constitution, because he could well frame one that that instead of limiting executive and majority power might actually strengthen them," he warns. According to Negbi, the only political barrier to preventing a Lieberman-led assault on judicial checks and balances is the Labor Party, and he fears it might be too weak to make a difference. "They did get various conditions into the government guidelines, like preserving the Supreme Court's standing, and they have a veto on proposed changes to basic laws. But I am not sure to what extent they are really committed to preserving the rule of law, and I am very uneasy," he says. Lieberman and his supporters reject the charges against his diplomatic credentials and his alleged threat to democracy out of hand. Ayalon says Lieberman is already working harmoniously with counterparts from all over the world and is about to embark on a tour of European capitals. He denies the Americans are angry about Lieberman's peremptory rejection of the Annapolis process, which he describes as "a desperate attempt by two failed administrations to find an agenda. But it led nowhere. It's history and the Americans aren't talking about it any more." As for the anti-democracy allegations, Ayalon insists that Lieberman is more of a democrat than most. "We have been talking about changing the electoral system to something very similar to the American presidential model for years. And are people now going tell us the American system with all its checks and balances is not democratic? "Secondly, when Lieberman speaks about civil marriage and easing conversions to Judaism, this is obviously all about civil rights, religious pluralism and democracy. "And as for the Supreme Court's activism, there are many people besides Lieberman who argue that not everything should be within the court's jurisdiction," he retorts. Ayalon also insists that far from being a racist, Lieberman is actually offering Israeli Arabs a way into mainstream Israeli society. Like Jews who serve in the army, Arabs who do national or community service would be rewarded. "Military service for Israelis has for years been the entrance ticket into many areas of Israeli life and work. Now it will be open for all Israeli citizens. It's leveling the playing field more than anything else," Ayalon claims. Ayalon also defends Lieberman's plan to put Umm el-Fahm and other Israeli Arab towns and villages in Palestine. He argues that the territorial and population exchange it entails should be seen as part of major historic process bringing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to an end. "We really want to implement a vision of a new regional architecture, without being slaves to past constructs, like the Green Line, which was never a permanent border between Israel and the West Bank, only a temporary armistice line. So it's legitimate to put everything on the table, including new borders, especially since people won't be evacuated from their homes or lose their rights. And it is certainly a basis for negotiation," Ayalon maintains. With his broad sweep and bulldozing qualities, Lieberman could have an enormous impact on the architecture of the Middle East and the tenor of Israeli democracy. On the other hand, if police whispers prove correct, he could very soon find himself out of office, facing corruption charges and the early demise of the party he created and the home for the controversial ideas he embraced. • Cover story in Issue 2, May 11, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.