Avigdor Lieberman's New Role Raises Worries

Ultra-Nationalist Israeli Leader Plays Election Kingmaker

New Partnership: The joining of their two political parties has made Avigdor Lieberman effectively Netanyahu’s chief deputy.
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New Partnership: The joining of their two political parties has made Avigdor Lieberman effectively Netanyahu’s chief deputy.

By Nathan Guttman

Published November 04, 2012, issue of November 09, 2012.
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Lieberman’s domestic positions also provoke charges that he threatens Israeli democracy. Yisrael Beiteinu’s slogan in the previous elections was “no loyalty, no citizenship,” an allusion to the party’s proposed requirement that all citizens sign a loyalty oath to Israel as a Jewish state or face a loss of their right to vote. Many of Israel’s Arab citizens — almost 20% of the population — are seen as unlikely to make such a pledge.

Lieberman also described Arab members of Knesset who met with Hamas activists as “traitors” and suggested they be executed. He and his party led proposed legislation to curb the freedoms of and foreign funding of nongovernmental organizations that are working on issues relating to the rights of Arabs and Palestinians — a stance toward liberal groups that, in an Israeli context, echoed that taken by Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, of whom he is a declared admirer.

Netanyahu’s decision in 2009 to appoint Lieberman as foreign minister raised many eyebrows. Besides his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, some cited his penchant for undiplomatic declarations, such as his suggestion that Israel bomb Egypt’s Aswan Dam if the regime of then-Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak continued to support the Palestinians. Critics feared that his stances would lead to conflict with the United States and with Western European nations.

But the widely anticipated clash never occurred. Israel’s new top diplomat quickly made clear that he would focus on relations with Europe and the rest of the world, and leave America to Netanyahu and his confidants. Instead, Defense Minister Ehud Barak became the prime minister’s point man for all contacts with the Obama administration. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton also politely evaded talks with her Israeli counterpart, limiting them to formal meetings during Lieberman’s two visits to Washington and to Clinton’s tours to Israel.

The Jewish community followed a similar pattern. Lieberman, who did not visit the United States frequently in his four years as foreign minister, was not a repeat guest at Jewish gatherings, and his ties with Jewish organizational leaders were limited.

A clear formula emerged for Israel and its supporters: Lieberman was described as a man of limited significance — neither a politician to be ashamed of nor a figure whom supporters of Israel wished to showcase.

The Anti-Defamation League’s national director, Abraham Foxman, has criticized Lieberman’s support for legislation he deemed anti-democratic in the past but now believes it is time for the Jewish community change its basic stance toward him. Lieberman’s move into the top ranks of the Likud should be seen, according to Foxman, as evidence that he is more of a pragmatist than many believe. “He has been painted as a bogeyman,” Foxman said, comparing Lieberman to legendary Likud leader Menachem Begin who was also shunned early in his career by those who referred only to his days as a militant underground activist.

Foxman has urged European foreign ministers, the U.S. Department of State and key leaders of the Jewish community to give Lieberman a second look. “Those who got a chance to meet him saw he is not a monster,” he said.

Daniel Sokatch, CEO of the New Israel Fund, a progressive philanthropy in the United States that funds many groups that Lieberman seeks to curb, remains skeptical. “His views toward minorities are very problematic,” he said. “It makes it that much harder to be an advocate for Israel.”

But even Sokatch admitted it is not a black-and-white picture. Lieberman could be NIF’s ally in promoting religious pluralism and civil marriage in Israel, he said. “I want to see a silver lining,” Sokatch said. “I hope things will now begin to move on these issues.”

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com


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