Where Lieberman and Obama meet

Both have focused on igniting a public discourse that revolves around values, rather than policies.

liberman obama 248 88 (photo credit: )
liberman obama 248 88
(photo credit: )
There is something counterintuitively similar in the rhetoric used by US President Barack Obama and Israel Beiteinu" chairman Avigdor Lieberman. Whereas the two figures' political agendas could not be more different, both have focused their recent political efforts on igniting a public discourse that revolves around values rather than policies. Whereas Obama has revived discussion of equality and freedom, Lieberman has delved deep into the (arguably inconsistent) nature of the Jewish state. To be sure, both have done so at the expense of discussing ad hoc, expedient policy recommendations. (This was true for Obama's campaign up until his inaugural address). While addressing the American people on January 20, Obama made it clear he had every intention to continue the mission put forth by the Founding Fathers and adhere to the American value system established some 233 years before him. "The time has come... to carry forward the noble idea... that all are equal, all are free and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness," he said in his inaugural speech. In thus referring to the three pillars underlying the American Declaration of Independence, Obama committed himself to making politics the continuation of ideals, to rephrase Clausewitz's observation. After a decade in which the pendulum of US ideology and interests swung in favor of interests, Obama took upon himself a challenging set of priorities: Values first, politics after. Ten thousand miles away in Israel, Moldovan-born MK Lieberman did something stunningly similar. While running his campaign for the February 2009 general election, Lieberman brought to the forefront of his political campaign a value-oriented discussion, pertaining to the nature of the Jewish state. Consciously or not, Lieberman's campaign slogan "There's no citizenship without loyalty" took on the task of addressing perhaps the most fundamental question emerging from Israel's Declaration of Independence: Can Israel be both a democratic and a Jewish state? Lieberman is quite bluntly suggesting that the answer is a simple no. 'THERE'S NO CITIZENSHIP without loyalty" alludes to the disturbing attempts of Arab-Israeli MKs to defame the State of Israel, while posing a real threat its security in the name of democracy. Arab-initiated, anti-Israel statements and sentiments have become a daily matter at the Knesset, spearheaded by Arab-Israeli MKs such as Ahmed Tibi and Taleb a-Sanaa. Calls have been repeatedly made at the Knesset to condemn Israel as a "Nazi" and "apartheid" state, while Arab MKs justify the continuation of the armed struggle. Such expressions were dwarfed by actions taken to proactively sabotage Israel's security. MK Azmi Bishara, for example, was accused by the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) in 2007 of advising Hizbullah where to aim the Katyusha rockets during the Second Lebanon War. In exchange, Bishara was offered hundreds of thousands of dollars. Now imagine what would be the fate of a congressman who called for the death of America from his congressional seat, or told Osama bin Laden where to carry out the next 9/11. LIEBERMAN'S CAMPAIGN is bold to the extent that it fearlessly confronts the toughest philosophical questions posed by Israel's founding fathers, much like Obama did in the States. While Israel's Declaration of Independence does not straightforwardly address the question of Arab-Israeli loyalty to the state, it does leave clouded the precise nature it should adopt - a true democracy or a plain state of the Jews. The declaration essentially suggests that a mélange of both identities - Jewish and democratic - is reasonably attainable. It suggests no recipe, however, as to what to do if the combination turns out to be incongruent. Lieberman's campaign is brilliant to the extent that it pioneers a notion that no one else had dared to address. That is, there's something fundamentally problematic in running both a Jewish and a democratic state. Lieberman implies that perhaps there is something essentially oxymoronic, or self-contradictory, in such a vision. Recognizing that Israel is a Jewish state places the Jews by definition before anyone else on the ladder of civil and religious rights, despite any attempts to claim otherwise. This, to me, seems like a rather undemocratic thing to do. It's much like suggesting that America should be both Christian and democratic. Lieberman's campaign may be alarming to Jewish liberals (let alone to Israel's Arab neighbors), to the extent that he has managed to rally around him masses of Israeli (and not just Russian-born) youths calling "Death to the Arabs." Lieberman admittedly boasts of opinions that are racist, and some would say even fascist. Yet there's something tragically energizing, and desperately long-sought, in the discussion he has managed to stir. While the big three - Ehud Barak, Tzipi Livni and Binyamin Netanyahu - are proposing ad hoc solutions to temporary problems (economic stimuli, better security, wider coalitions), someone has finally taken on the Obama approach, unearthing the decaying corpse of national values from its long-forgotten tombstone. It is barely surprising that youths are so excited about Lieberman's campaign. They too realize that someone has finally started asking the right questions. The writer is a graduate of the Government Department at Harvard College. She is a Milken Institute Fellow at the Israel Securities Authority, and the founder of www.ExigoGroup.com.