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.
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 and would execute Arab members of the Knesset who talk to Hamas.
Many Israelis–and many Americans–are sleeping through Lieberman’s rise, but there have been voices of alarm. The daily Ha’aretz 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.”
Like Hamas, which swept the Palestinian elections last January, Lieberman, though striving for power through the ballot box, believes democracy is at best a secondary value. In a September interview he said: “The vision I would like to see here is the entrenching of the Jewish and the Zionist state. I very much favor democracy, but when there is a contradiction between democratic and Jewish values, the Jewish and Zionist values are more important.”
Lieberman has no tolerance for pluralism. In one of his first pronouncements as minister, he called for making Israel “as much as possible” a homogeneous Jewish state. His party’s platform includes a plan under which some Arab areas of Israel would be transferred to the Palestinian Authority, albeit without consulting the Arab citizens. “In exchange” Israel would annex large West Bank settlements. In his book My Truth, Lieberman argues that the Arab minority poses the greatest threat to Israel’s future. His platform could be used to disenfranchise the Arab minority, now one-fifth of the population, or pave the way for its expulsion.
Along with Netanyahu, Lieberman is the prime beneficiary of the sea change in Israeli politics after the Lebanon war. Israel’s leaders rushed into the conflict without weighing alternatives and showed a disregard for the lives of Lebanese civilians and even their own soldiers. Most Israelis cannot forgive Olmert or the hapless Defense Minister Amir Peretz–who just a year ago was the great new progressive hope of the Labor Party–for their inept handling of the campaign. In political terms, the major casualty of the war was Olmert’s “convergence” plan to unilaterally withdraw from isolated West Bank settlements while annexing large settlement blocs. Olmert now has a void instead of an agenda. The entire power structure has been discredited–but not Lieberman, who was not associated with the Lebanon debacle and who unabashedly adheres to the same stances he held in opposition.
With no background in security and a record of threats against other countries, Lieberman is an unlikely choice for handling Israel’s strategic challenges, including how to deal with Iran. But for Olmert, it seems, Israeli security comes second to political expediency. “What totally disgusts me is the fact that Olmert saw fit to create a security ministry for a man who is a security liability for Israel. He is prepared to use Israeli security as a political goodie,” says the Jaffee Center’s Alpher.
Democracy is also for sale in Olmert’s Israel. Legislation Lieberman has prepared, for which Olmert mustered Cabinet approval, would transfer many of the Knesset’s powers to the prime minister–powers that will be in Lieberman’s hands if he is elected. The plan does away with no-confidence votes, calls for direct election of the prime minister and allows the prime minister to appoint a Cabinet without Knesset approval. The prime minister would not have to wait for Cabinet or parliamentary approval to promulgate emergency regulations that could overturn existing laws. “Lieberman wants a Putin-style regime here,” says Tel Aviv University political scientist Yoav Peled. “I don’t think it can happen under the current government, but it’s very significant, because this is the plan he will implement when he has the power. And pretty soon he will have the power.”