Alex Stein, our oleh khadash (new immigrant) blogger in Israel is not in a panic on the pending elevation of the rightist politician (Avigdor, not Joe) Lieberman to the current governing coalition:
Avigdor Lieberman’s entry into the coalition demonstrates what has become depressingly clear since the end of the summer spat with Hizbollah – that Ehud Olmert is concerned only with maintaining power. Sensationalism on the right and the left – both of which are happy to distort rhetoric before confusing it with reality – does not disguise this. The courtship of Yisrael Beitenu means that Olmert has an almost unheard of coalition – 78 strong. But there are no signs that the political stasis that has struck us down is going to radically change – either for the better or the worst.
Much has been made of Lieberman’s rhetoric towards the Palestinians – of both the Israeli and Occupied Territories variety. Indeed, some have triumphantly asked if Israel would object to other countries aping its response – withdrawal of its ambassador – to the entry of Jorg Haider into the Austrian government in 2000. This is because Lieberman is understood as supporting the ethnic cleansing of Israel’s Palestinian citizens.
In reality, Lieberman’s stated plans are a bit more technical. North of the Green Line sits the meshulash [triangle] region, which is principally populated by Israeli-Palestinians. Lieberman wants to unilaterally ‘give’ this region to the stunted Palestinian state that he would establish, in exchange for annexing the major settlement blocs. This plan is obviously illegal, immoral and anti-democratic, although perhaps not worthy of the ‘ethnic cleansing’ tag. But there is absolutely no chance of them being implemented, and in his heart of hearts he must know that.
Lieberman’s plans to ‘cantonise’ the Palestinians into four sectors, with Israel controlling movement in between, have been similarly hyped. But they also don’t represent such a radical departure from Olmert’s annexation plan, which continues apace – despite pretences to the contrary. The difference is solely one of presentation. Olmert pretends that his ideas will lead to a fair and viable Palestinian state; Lieberman is open about his ideal of imprisoning them.
What of domestic issues? Lieberman wants to transform the Israeli polity from a parliamentary to a presidential system. This has passed the first hurdle – a vote in the cabinet. But it still seems unlikely that the plan will succeed, especially in the current circumstances. Rhetoric about ‘stability’ notwithstanding, most figures in the Israeli establishment see Lieberman’s manoeuvres for what they are – an attempt to Putinise the Israeli political system. And how would it square with Olmert’s new goal of finally creating an Israeli constitution?
It’s true that Lieberman and Olmert are good friends, and it’s true that Lieberman will now be closer to power than ever before. The positive side to this, of course, is the marginalisation of Binyamin Netanyahu, who only two months ago was being hailed by some as Israel’s next Prime Minister. It also provides yet another reminder of the desperate need for some kind of alternative. In this regard, Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit’s tentative attempts to place himself as an opposing force to Olmert, under the manifesto of negotiating on the basis of the Arab League initiative, should be viewed in a positive light. So should Labour leader Amir Peretz’s idea of another merger with Meretz-Yachad. But until someone has the courage to build a political bloc on this basis, the stasis of Israel’s dullest and most visionless government yet will continue. And not even Avigdor Lieberman as ‘Minister for Strategic Affairs’ will change that.
Lieberman is no surprise. American history offers a precedent. American antebellum politics was also dominated by former generals and full of political corruption. It even offered a congressional debate over conquered territories from 1846-1850! The Second Party System was dominated by two parties: the Democrats (ideologically like today’s Republicans or the Likud) and the Whigs. The Whigs like today’s Labor Party were dependent on former generals to capture the presidency–Wm H. Harrison and Zachary Taylor. After their remaining general, Winfield Scott, lost the presidential election in 1852 the party began to fall apart over the issue of slavery.
Israel’s system of list proportional representation acts like the arid desert air to help preserve electoral corpses. Labor has a choice between continuing its longterm decline or the progressive element can merge with Meretz, as progressive Whigs merged with Free Soilers and dissident Democrats to form the Republicans in 1855-56. Meretz can survive without the “Whigs” but the Whigs cannot win without Meretz.