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Israel's Latest Straw Man By: P. David Hornik
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, February 20, 2009

I didn’t rejoice when Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu Party did relatively well in Israel’s elections last week. Lieberman has been under police investigation for a decade; he may eventually be acquitted, or maybe not. In the election campaign he used a slogan—“Only Lieberman understands Arabic”—that smacks of bigotry. Late in 2006 he joined—and saved—the feckless Olmert government at a time of mounting public protest over the failed war in Lebanon.

But having reservations about someone and demonizing him are two different things, and the demonization of Lieberman is quickly gathering steam. Some American Jewish leaders are claiming his rise to prominence could damage U.S.-Israeli relations. A group of U.S. academics have started an online petition to get the Likud and Kadima parties to keep Lieberman out of the government.

The accusations against Lieberman, not infrequently extending to the words racist and fascist, center on his statements and positions about Israeli Arabs. But are these positions necessarily reprehensible?

In the run-up to the elections, Lieberman and his views gained popularity in reaction to Israeli Arab protests against the war in Gaza. But “protests” is a mild word in this context.

On January 3, when Israel’s campaign against Hamas was about a week old, a crowd of tens of thousands of Israeli Arabs demonstrated against the war in the town of Sakhnin in the Galilee. Israeli Arab Member of Knesset Jamal Zahalka told the crowd that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi must be tried for war crimes by an international tribunal. MK Mohammad Barakeh said, “…we take pride [in this] protest over the ongoing massacre against the Palestinian people in Gaza…. The Arab population [is] voic[ing] its steadfast opinion against the mentality of occupation and racism. We are here and will always be here until this mentality and all those who implement it are gone.”

Rally leader Ibrahim Zabidat said, “The Israeli killing machine must stop. I call from here to the people in Gaza and say: Don’t be afraid, don’t give up, block them with your blood in order to build the state of Palestine, whose capital is Jerusalem….” Mazen Ghnaim, mayor of Sakhnin, said, “…the Israel Air Force jets are bombing and murdering innocent people. I call on Israel to end the war immediately and lift the siege. I send a greeting to Gaza’s residents, who are facing the Israeli occupation machine. Long live Palestine, whose capital is Jerusalem, and long live the shahids (martyrs).”

Marchers “held Palestinian flags and even a smattering of green Hamas flags….” In the week before the rally, “210 Arabs were arrested in the North for endangering lives, rock throwing, and other offenses…. Across the country, 442 Arabs [were] arrested for violent disturbances, 149 of those minors.”

Amid all this, Lieberman’s insistence that Israeli Arabs—and all other Israelis—should not receive citizenship automatically, but should have to qualify for it by serving in military or civilian frameworks and signing a loyalty oath to the state, won a certain resonance. It is possible to understand this without resorting to terms like racism. For an analogy to what happened in Israel during the war, one would to have imagine, during WW II, large numbers of American citizens demonstrating in favor of the Axis powers and engaging in violent insurrection against America.

And the problem of the Israeli Arab sector, unfortunately, goes beyond its response to the recent war. A 2007 poll found that 33% of Israeli Arab high school and college graduates are Holocaust deniers. Another poll that year found 64% of Israeli Arabs denying Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish-Zionist state, 20% denying its right to exist at all, and 10.8% supporting violence to advance Israeli Arab interests.

An internal document of Israel’s General Security Service called the Israeli Arab sector a “genuine long-range danger to the Jewish character and very existence of the State of Israel.” Two mass terror attacks in Jerusalem in 2008—a shooting rampage at a yeshiva and a bulldozer rampage, totaling 10 dead and 60 wounded—were perpetrated by Israeli Arabs from East Jerusalem. Also in 2008 six Al Qaeda-linked Israeli Arabs were arrested for plotting to kill then-President Bush while in Israel, and two other Israeli Arabs were arrested for passing strategic information to Al Qaeda.

Israeli professor Dan Shueftan, a former adviser to Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon, told the 2007 Herzliya Conference that Israeli Arabs favor “replac[ing Israel] with a binational state, alongside a mechanism to turn it into an Arab state…the Palestinian national minority in Israel has a consensus view demanding recognition by the Jews of their exclusive guilt and their own lack of legitimacy, as well as an agreement to destroy the national Jewish project.”

Statements by Israeli Arab MKs like the above-quoted ones at the Sakhnin rally are the rule rather than the exception. For instance, MK Ahmed Tibi wrote in an op-ed in the Arabic-language Al-Quds that “Palestine belongs to its Arab residents, not to the Jewish occupiers.” MK Azmi Bishara fled Israel after being charged with giving Hezbollah information on strategic targets for rocket attacks during the 2006 war in Lebanon.

Notwithstanding all this, at present Avigdor Lieberman’s slogan “No loyalty, no citizenship” obfuscates more than it illumines. Does it mean all the millions of Israelis already possessing citizenship would have to sign the loyalty oath or lose that citizenship? What of the considerable number of ultra-religious Jewish Israelis who refuse military or civilian service and whose fealty to the state is questionable? How would the loyalty oath be implemented?

Still, for Lieberman to raise this issue—even if his rhetoric has once or twice gone over the top—is a legitimate response to a very real problem and danger that Israelis live with. It is also worth noting that Lieberman the complex human being—as opposed to Lieberman the demon—is presently the Israeli politician who is doing the most to achieve electoral reform as well as liberalization of marriage and religious-conversion laws and concomitant weakening of the Chief Rabbinate.

In other words Lieberman can, rather than epithets, be described as a liberal nationalist—for those for whom that’s not unbearably complex. Another previously demonized Israeli leader, Sharon, also proved more complex than his cardboard image when he angered part of the Israeli Right and pleased the Left with his disengagement from Gaza and northern Samaria, for motives that remain a subject of controversy.

But for many people, setting up cardboard caricatures of Israeli leaders and knocking them down seems to fulfill a need. That’s why Avigdor Lieberman will likely remain a magnet for vituperation instead of considering him and his ideas dispassionately.

P. David Hornik is a freelance writer and translator living in Beersheva. He blogs at http://pdavidhornik.typepad.com/. He can be reached at pdavidh2001@yahoo.com.

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