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.”