Avigdor Lieberman is in the news over corruption allegations. But what does the political grouping around Lieberman represent? And what do Lieberman’s number one target, Arab Israelis, think about political developments in Israel?
Avigdor Lieberman leads Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home), which won 15 of the 120 Knesset seats in the February 2009 Israeli general election. Yisrael Beiteinu took 11.7% of the vote and beat Labour into fourth place. During the election campaign the leftist Meretz party likened Yisrael Beiteinu to Le Pen’s French National Front.
Lieberman’s hard-right policies on security and the country’s Arab minority grew in popularity alongside a general swing to the right in an electorate which had backed Israel’s assault on Gaza over December 2008-January 2009. During the war Lieberman suggested that Hamas be fought “just like the United States did with the Japanese in World War Two. Then, too, the occupation of the country was unnecessary.” His comments were widely understood to be suggesting the use of nuclear weapons, and are typical of his demagogic style.
Lieberman was born in 1958 in Kishinev — then a part of the USSR, now Moldova. His family emigrated to Israel in 1978. At the Hebrew University in Jerusalem he joined a student group linked to the right-wing Likud party.
In the late 1980s he started working with Benjamin Netanyahu. After Netanyahu was elected as Likud leader, Lieberman served as Director General of the party.
Yisrael Beiteinu was founded by Lieberman as a platform for Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union who favoured a tough line in negotiations with the Palestinians. The party won four seats in the 1999 election when Lieberman became an MK (MP). The party’s big break came when they took 11 Knesset seats in 2006.
In 2003 Yisrael Beiteinu joined Ariel Sharon’s right-wing government and Lieberman became Transport Minister. When Transport Minister he offered to supply buses to drown Palestinian prisoners in the Dead Sea rather than release them as part of an amnesty agreement. More demagogy.
Lieberman was pushed out in 2004 after opposing Sharon’s Gaza withdrawal plan.
Several months after the May 2006 elections Yisrael Beiteinu joined Ehud Olmert’s Kadima-led government.
Lieberman was soon involved in controversy, denouncing Labour Leader Amir Peretz’s nomination of a Muslim Arab for the post of Minister of Science. Lieberman called for Peretz’s resignation, and Peretz denounced Yisrael Beiteinu as a racist party. Esterina Tartman, then a Yisrael Beiteinu MK, described the proposal to include an Arab in the government as a “lethal blow to Zionism,” and suggested, “We need to destroy this affliction from within ourselves.”
Yisrael Beiteinu left the coalition in early 2008 in protest at government talks with the Palestinian Authority. About this Lieberman said, “Negotiations on the basis of land for peace are a critical mistake ... and will destroy us.”
Yisrael Beitenu regards the Arab Israelis as an “enemy within”.
In March 2009 Yisrael Beiteinu joined Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud-led coalition, taking five ministerial posts. Lieberman is a Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister.
Lieberman supports a form of Two States position which would see Israel’s boundaries re-drawn to take in settlements in the West Bank and exclude Arab areas within the current Israeli state. The plan would mean areas such as the “Triangle”, gained from Jordan under the 1949 Armistice Agreement, would be transferred to the control of a Palestinian authority. Under the plan around one-third of Arab Israeli citizens would lose their citizenship. Arab Israelis are bitterly opposed to such a proposal.
Lieberman has advocated offering financial compensation in exchange for Israeli Arabs renouncing their citizenship and land. Those condemning his proposals have included Ariel Sharon, who commented, “We regard Israeli Arabs as part of the State of Israel.”
In March 2008 a poll commissioned by the Knesset television station, showed 75 percent of the Jewish public supported the transfer of at least some Arab Israelis as part of a peace deal with the Palestinians, including 28 percent who believed all Arab Israelis should be forcibly transferred.
In 2009 Lieberman fought under the slogan “No loyalty, no citizenship” saying, “Israel is under a dual terrorist attack, from within and from without. And terrorism from within is always more dangerous than terrorism from without.” He has suggested that some elected Arab MPs in the Israeli parliament should be tried for treason and then executed.
Yisrael Beitenu caused outrage in May 2009, when it proposed laws banning Israeli Arabs from marking the anniversary of what Palestinians call the “Nakba” (or “Palestinian catastrophe” accompanying the creation of Israel, marked on 15 May), with jail terms of up to three years for offenders. Inside Israel the initiative met with widespread opposition as it ran counter to Israel’s free-speech laws.
Israeli Arabs continue to mark the anniversary. According to the US State Department, on 15 May 2008, around “15,000 Arab Israelis and other activists marched to the former Arab village of Safouriya, now a Jewish community, as part of a demonstration to mark the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel. The procession, which started peacefully, ended with clashes between demonstrators and security forces. The police stated that they acted with restraint and appropriate force after several demonstrators began throwing stones at them, while the demonstrators claimed that the police attacked first. The Israeli NGOs Adalah and the Arab Association of Human Rights (AAHR) released video footage that, according to press reports, showed police beating or kicking some demonstrators in the head and face as they sat handcuffed on the ground.”
In May a Ministerial Committee rejected a Yisrael Beitenu bill stating that those who wish to retain Israeli citizenship would have to declare their loyalty to Israel as a Jewish state. The bill, proposed by Yisrael Beiteinu’s MK David Rotem, stated that the oath would include a pledge of loyalty to Israel as a Jewish, Zionist, and democratic state, to its emblems and values, and serving Israel either through military service or through equivalent alternatives. (The law exempts Arab Israelis from mandatory military service. Citizens who do not perform military service enjoy fewer social and economic benefits.)
Yisrael Beiteinu officials said the initiative was important given what they described as the anti-Israel behaviour of Israel's Arab citizens during the 2006 Lebanon War and the recent Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip.
Minority Affairs Minister, Labour MK Avishay Braverman, welcomed the rejection of the bill, saying, “bills such as this one will not be brought before this government or any future government, and sanity will once again play a role in the governing of the state of Israel.” Labour continues to be a junior partner in government.
However a more cautiously worded version of the bill was presented in June. This time the text proposes preventing public money being used to support Israeli Arab protests, or funding activities deemed detrimental to the state.
In July Israel’s Education Ministry ordered the removal of the word “Nakba” from a textbook used in schools by young Arab children. Education Minister, Likud MK Gideon Saar, stated: “The objective of our education system is not to deny the legitimacy of our state, nor to promote extremism among Arab-Israelis.” The word was introduced into a text book in 2007, for use in Arab schools only, by the then Education Minister, Labour’s Yuli Tamir.
Jafar Farrah, director of Equality, ann Israeli-Arab group said the decision only “complicated the conflict” and called the move an attempt to seek confrontation with Israel’s Arab population.
Likud and two states
Netanyahu was previously Prime Minister from 1996-99. A good deal of the responsibility for the breakdown of the post-93 Oslo peace agreement is his.
The “Peace and Security” chapter of the 1999 Likud Party platform rejects “the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state west of the Jordan river.” The chapter continues, “The Palestinians can run their lives freely in the framework of self-rule, but not as an independent and sovereign state.”
However Netanyahu is now under real pressure from the new American administration. For his first two months afer coming into office, Netanyahu refused to commit to anything other than a measures of “self-rule” (autonomy under Israeli overlordship). Following Obama’s Cairo speech (June 2009), Netanyahu finally endorsed a “demilitarised Palestinian state”. He continues to state that Jerusalem will be undivided, Israeli territory.
In his 14 June speech Netanyahu stated that West Bank settlement expansions will be limited, and based on the natural growth of the population with no new territories taken in. He did not discuss whether or not they should be part of Israel after peace negotiations, simply saying that the “question will be discussed.” Tzipi Livni, leader of Kadima, remarked that Netanyahu does not believe in a two state solution at all. Livni stated that he was faking in response to international pressure.
The current focus of diverging Israeli-US policy is over settlement building. On 17 June Lieberman met Hillary Clinton and had a major row as Lieberman dismissed her demand to end settlement expansion. Financial Times described the meeting as “one of the most tense encounters between the sides for several years.”
The Guardian reported (22 July) that Netanyahu now proposes to remove 23 settler outposts on the West Bank, which will bring him into conflict with his own supporters. Clearly the Likud leader feels obliged to make concessions to the US, while continuing to expand existing settlements.
Both Liberman and Likud want the US to focus only on the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons.
The Arab minority
Around one in five Israelis — 1.3 million — are Arab, who in their majority define themselves as Palestinians, an identity strengthened during the intifadas. Recent polls suggest that only a minority are willing to recognise Israel’s right to exist as a “Jewish and democratic state”, although a majority want to remain Israeli citizens, rather than citizens of a future Palestinian state.
Such poll findings have been radically affected over the last five years by the Israeli wars in Lebanon and Gaza and the failure to create a Palestinian state. Lieberman’s policies address this shift in Arab-Israeli opinion, but in order to make the divisions more acute.
Not only are Arab Israelis a sizable minority, but they are a growing proportion (although the speed of this growth is debated and is possibly often exaggerated). In 2003, the Arab minority was called a “demographic bomb” by Benjamin Netanyahu. Part of the rationale for a “land-swap” Two States “solution” is to maintain a large Jewish majority within Israel.
After 1948 most Arabs remaining in Israel were granted citizenship. The Israeli Declaration of Independence states, “The State of Israel shall uphold absolute social and political equality of rights for all citizens, without distinction of religion, race or sex; it shall guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language education and culture.” Later the proclamation reads, “We call, even in the midst of this bloody onslaught… to the sons of Arab people who are residents of the State of Israel to maintain peace and to take part in the building of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and on the basis of appropriate representation in all its institutions.”
Israel is a bourgeois-democratic state, and its legal institutions and some of its politicians have attempted to be true to the spirit of this declaration, within the limits of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Nevertheless, before 1966 the Israeli Arabs were subjected to martial law, travel permits and curfews. After 1966 most discriminatory legislation was abolished.
However, the US State Department country report (2008) remarks, “Arab Israelis continued to suffer various forms of discrimination in public and private life.”
“Arab Israelis were underrepresented in most fields of employment, including government, despite a five-year-old affirmative action program to promote hiring Arab Israelis in the civil service. According to the government, 6.2 percent of government employees in 2007 were Arab.
“A 2000 law requires that minorities have ‘appropriate representation’ in the civil service and on the boards of government corporations… Of the 55,000 persons working in government companies, 1 percent were Arab.”
Yisrael Beitenu offer reactionary solutions to a growing conflict inside Israel which is not just reducible to a battle for equality within the state.
The suspicions and tensions between the Israeli majority and Arab minority will probably continue to worsen without the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. The current right-wing campaigns which target the Arab Israeli citizens are a logical compliment to their hostility to a rational “two states” settlement with the Palestinians.
A free, democratic and flourishing Palestinian state alongside Israel would ease Jewish-Arab tensions both between Israel and the outside Arab world, and within Israel itself.