Israel’s new far right

Avigdor Lieberman wants to make Israel as ethnically Jewish as possible, even if that results in a loss of territory The Guardian Comment Is Free, March 2, 2009 “I also advocate the creation of a…

Avigdor Lieberman wants to make Israel as ethnically Jewish as possible, even if that results in a loss of territory

The Guardian Comment Is Free, March 2, 2009

“I also advocate the creation of a viable Palestinian state,” Avigdor Lieberman says nonchalantly in an article for the Jewish Week of New York.

Of course Lieberman – founder and chair of Yisrael Beitenu – is trying to appeal to an American audience and his article is hardly a liberal manifesto. But it does reveal that opposing peace negotiations is not among the priorities of his far-right party, now Israel’s third biggest.

One of the central tenets of Lieberman’s recent election campaign was that Arab Israelis are a danger to the country. The slogan of Israel Beiteinu (which means “Israel our home”) was “no loyalty, no citizenship”. Lieberman’s racist rhetoric sent a chill through many Israelis, but regrettably not enough.

Conventional wisdom would consider Lieberman’s rise, which has contributed significantly to Binyamin Netanyahu’s capacity to form a government, as a sign Israel has taken a sharp turn to the right. True enough – but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Lieberman’s success signifies not so much a return of Israel to the right as it does the rise of a new right, which prioritises Purer Israel over Greater Israel.

The traditional right in Israel opposes a compromise with the Palestinians. Mainstream conservatives like Netanyahu and the Likud party aspire, in their most compromising moments, to set the border with a future Palestinian state as far to the east of the 1967 Green Line as possible.

Lieberman, on the other hand, wants Israel to push Arab-populated towns toward a future Palestine through a land swap with a Palestinian state, redrawing the border in some cases west of the Green Line. His top interest is having Israel as ethnically Jewish as possible, even if it results in loss of territory.

To be sure, Lieberman’s rhetoric that favours the iron fist doesn’t make him a willing partner for peace. He sprays his irresponsible policy recommendations and undiplomatic comments wherever he goes, suggesting, for example, that the Egyptian president should “go to hell.”

But unlike the religious right, Lieberman is not obsessed with rejecting territorial concessions. With this tenuous link to moderation, Lieberman is likely to find himself holding a senior ministerial position in the new government, whatever its final makeup. He has previously served as minister for strategic threats in a Kadima-led government that had Labour as the senior coalition partner.

Sadly, Lieberman’s popularity shows how shockingly normal Israel has become. We, too, have our European-like far-right leaders and xenophobic parties, obsessed with keeping the hegemony of the majority groups against ostensible threats from minorities. This is all the more disgraceful because, too often in history, Jews were the target of the toxic arrows of that xenophobia.

The rise of Israel’s new right is a product of the acceptance of a two-state solution as a mainstream notion among Israelis. This made Israel’s traditional right-left divide on support or rejection of a Palestinian state almost redundant.

In the last few years, a majority of Israelis have consistently supported a two-state solution, a Palestinian state alongside an Israel roughly contained within its pre-1967 borders. The founding of the centrist party, Kadima, by Ariel Sharon, formerly the settlement movement’s greatest ally, on a platform of further withdrawals after the pullout from Gaza, had become the ultimate symbol of a new zeitgeist. When prime minister Ehud Olmert spoke recently on a compromise in Jerusalem, Israel’s best known political hot potato, he hardly even made it to the newspapers’ front pages.

Like many politicians, Lieberman may prove softer in action than in tongue. But his success should force Israelis to redefine where they stand on the status of non-Jews in the Jewish state. The task of the Zionist left is clearer than ever, and harder still, to promote the integration of the Arab minority in Israel’s society and politics and thus to convince the world – and Israel itself – that Zionism and racism are incompatible.

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