Tzipi Livni’s Kadima Party received the most overall votes in Israel’s February 10 elections, but the real winner may have been Avigdor Lieberman’s far-right Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Is Our Home) Party, which surged to third place, outpolling the Labor Party with fifteen seats. In this prescient 2006 Nation article, Ben Lynfield dissected the Lieberman phenomenon.
When the Galilee town of Sakhnin’s predominantly Arab soccer team was awarded the Israel Cup in 2004, Avigdor Lieberman was not in the mood to bestow congratulations. Instead, Lieberman, head of the Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Is Our Home) party, implied in a newspaper interview that the team, Hapoel Bnei Sakhnin, would one day be expelled from Israel to the West Bank. “Sakhnin will not play in the Israeli league and will represent the other [Palestinian] league. They may even call it Hapoel Shechem [Nablus],” Lieberman joked.
Far from his nakedly anti-Arab approach disqualifying him from the political mainstream, Lieberman is today its rising star. He was welcomed into the ruling coalition in October as “minister for strategic threats” and is now the main ally and crutch of faltering Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
An immigrant from the former Soviet Union who lives in the illegal West Bank settlement of Nokdim, Lieberman is stoking anti-Arab sentiment and exploiting insecurity and disillusionment after the fiasco of last summer’s Lebanon war. Top office, or at least the Defense Ministry, is a realistic goal for Lieberman, a shrewd political tactician who helped Benjamin Netanyahu gain election as Prime Minister in 1996 and served in Ariel Sharon’s Cabinet. “If elections were held now, based on the polls, he could presumably be either prime minister or demand any other ministry he wanted,” says Yossi Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.
If Lieberman’s pronouncements are to be taken seriously–and there is no obvious reason they should not be–a Lieberman government would exclude some Arab citizens from Israel, would expel others who refuse to sign a loyalty-to-Zionism oath, would turn Gaza into Grozny and would execute Arab members of the Knesset who talk to Hamas or mark Israel Independence Day as the anniversary of the displacement of the Palestinians in 1948.
Many Israelis–and many Americans–are sleeping through the rise of Lieberman. Others are through their actions facilitating the ascendance of fascist ideas in Israel. Lieberman is more than kosher as far as Washington is concerned. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice welcomed him at the State Department on December 11, a day after he was featured at a forum, sponsored by the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center, that also included Bill Clinton, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and several other members of Congress.
There have been voices of alarm inside Israel. The daily Ha’aretz has warned that the appointment of the “unrestrained and irresponsible” Lieberman “constitutes a strategic threat in its own right,” and Hebrew University political scientist Ze’ev Sternhell says, “Lieberman is perhaps the most dangerous politician in the history of the State of Israel.” Sternhell believes Lieberman poses a greater threat to democracy than previous far-right politicians because Lieberman has not been confined to the margins and because “he has a genuine social power base among the Russian immigrants and in the lower middle class among people who think the Knesset and Supreme Court have too much power.”