In a further indication of his acceptance into the political mainstream, controversial right-wing Israeli politician and newly minted government minister Avigdor Lieberman will be hosted next month in New York by the most influential umbrella organization of American Jewish groups.
The leader of the secular nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party, Lieberman is best known for his proposal to transfer part of Israel’s Arab population by turning over territory within the 1967 border to the Palestinians. But he is slated to speak about Iran on December 12, when he addresses the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in his capacity as deputy prime minister in charge of strategic threats.
In recent years, leading liberals, as well as some prominent centrists, have claimed that the Presidents Conference was tilting toward the right. Yet the decision to host Lieberman, a pariah among Israeli doves, has not drawn any public objections from members of the conference. Lieberman is also scheduled to appear in front of the hawkish Middle East Forum, a think tank run by conservative scholar Daniel Pipes.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the outspoken liberal voice who is president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said that it was a “good idea” for the Presidents Conference to offer Lieberman the opportunity to explain his views and hear the voices of the American Jewish community.
“I would never object to the conference bringing an Israeli government minister,” Yoffie told the Forward. “This is part of their job as long as the policy is applied to the full range of the political spectrum.”
Yoffie, who met Lieberman in Israel before he became a minister, said next month’s meeting would be helpful, since it would expose Lieberman to the same diverging opinions he faces in Israel. According to Yoffie, the invitation does not represent an endorsement or the granting of legitimacy to Lieberman and his views.
“We wouldn’t want to give him the impression that we deem his extremist views as acceptable to the conference, to American Jews and to the American government,” Yoffie said.
Lieberman’s party captured 11 seats in the last Knesset elections, and was recently brought into the national unity government of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Last month, Olmert said that the inclusion of Lieberman did not represent an endorsement of his controversial platform regarding Israeli Arabs. The plan, initially introduced in 2004 as a response to the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and parts of the West Bank, advocated by then-prime minister Ariel Sharon, would entail the transfer of Israeli territories with high Arab populations abutting the 1967 armistice line and require any remaining Israeli Arab to take a loyalty oath to the Jewish state.
Born in the former Soviet Union, Lieberman previously served in the 1990s as chief of staff to then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud party. Yoffie said that Lieberman was more complex than the “wild-eyed lunatic” image conveyed by some of his recent statements. Still, the leader of Reform Judaism said that he intended to use the meeting to press the government minister on his “very extreme” views of Israeli Arabs and on his statements that Israel should deal with Hamas in the same ruthless manner in which Russia has been putting down the rebellion in its restive southern region of Chechnya.
“This is deeply offensive, because even the U.S. government has expressed concerns over Russia’s tactics in Chechnya,” Yoffie said. “This slash-and-burn approach is at odds with the democratic standards of Israel.”