Israeli Minister of Minority Affairs Avishai Braverman (Labor) thinks Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman should be fired from his ministry for saying that an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “…is not achievable in the next year or in the next generation.”
One understands Braverman’s point. Lieberman was, after all, not just offering an analysis. He himself is one of the main reasons that the pessimism he expresses exists. Lieberman is not merely a bystander offering a judgment, but an actor working against the sorts of resolutions that have, for more than 15 years, made up the foundation of a two-state solution.
But Braverman’s solution wouldn’t really change much. Lieberman’s “role” as Foreign Minister has been thoroughly curtailed. Indeed, every now and then, Lieberman, who is well aware of his marginalization in the Netanyahu government, bristles and has a public spat with his boss, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Bibi might toss Lieberman some kind of bone, but he has made it clear that Lieberman is not part of the inner circle. His opinion, in and of itself, carries no weight, and Bibi’s only concern (and it is a serious one) is what Lieberman can do domestically to rally people against the Likud leader.
This was evidenced once again at the Washington launch of direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians last week. Surely, any country’s foreign minister should be present at such a momentous event. But Lieberman couldn’t make it as he had a very important job in bringing his diplomatic powers to bear on the sensitive and crucial relationship between Israel and … Cyprus.
Bibi and Ehud Barak function as Israel’s Foreign Minister; this is well known. When one considers how much damage Lieberman’s Ministry has done to Israeli diplomacy (greatly magnifying the problems which are caused by some very misguided Israeli policies and actions) one can only imagine how bad a position Israel would be in as far as international standing goes if Bibi really let Lieberman be a foreign minister.
That’s not say that Lieberman is not a major threat, to peace, to the Palestinians, to Israeli security and democracy. It’s just that removing him from the foreign ministry, as Braverman calls for, won’t actually affect Lieberman’s ability to cause such problems.
Lieberman’s real strength is in his leadership of Yisrael Beiteinu, the second biggest party in the governing coalition Bibi leads, and his position as Israel’s most influential right-wing demagogue. The sad fact is that Lieberman, whose fanatical anti-Arab racism has drawn rebuke from a range of pundits that stretches from MJ Rosenberg all the way too Marty Peretz, has a sizable following in Israel.
This must be taken very seriously, and Lieberman can manipulate that popularity whether he is Foreign Minister or not, which is why Braverman’s remedy is insufficient.
Israel is still a democracy, albeit a democracy whose democratic structure is under increasing attack, as evidenced by the activities not only of leaders like Lieberman, but of groups like Im Tirtzu. And as such, political views of all types must be given their airspace. But for a democracy to function, forces like Lieberman’s which threaten that very democracy, as well as Israel’s security by opposing and trying to undermine peace with the Palestinians must be forcefully opposed.
It is not enough to oppose Lieberman’s presence in the Cabinet. Lieberman’s attempts to rid Israel of its non-Jewish inhabitants is an assault on the very essence of the Zionist dream, which sought to create a Jewish homeland that was also capable of governing a diverse community of people with reasonable equanimity. Israel has fallen very short of that goal already, but Lieberman’s drive to actually rid Israel of its Arab citizens directly contradicts the ideals of Zionism, right and left wings.
Lieberman’s marginalization in the government has had the unhappy side effect of letting Israelis treat him as a kind of embarrassing joke. Everyone in Israel knows he has no pull in the government, so they’d rather, quite understandably, try to ignore him.
But this means missing an opportunity to take back the notion of a Jewish homeland from those who understand that to mean Jewish domination of non-Jews. Ongoing support for Israel, from liberal Diaspora Jews as well as many other groups, depends on Israel becoming the state it can be, but has never been since its birth: a state that is the Jewish homeland, but which gives full equal rights, both on the books and in practice, to everyone.
That’s a lot to ask. Certainly we, in the United States, however much we may have progressed from slavery, and later, the Jim Crow days, still struggle with racism, disenfranchisement, and bigotry. The current wave of hate against Muslims as embodied in one church’s “Burn-a-Qu’ran Day” and the Park 51, or Ground Zero Mosque debate, demonstrates this amply.
But Israel is not the United States. It’s a much smaller country, much more of a community/country, and, due to the manner of its birth and the permanent conflict it has always lived with, its democracy is a much more fragile thing. And its dependence on escaping its own increasing pariah status is much more important to its future survival.
One cannot expect Israel to suddenly become an egalitarian utopia, but it must start t reverse the course it is on; that is, the course that led to the last election, where right-wing groups garnered so much support and an open racist like Lieberman can hold the keys to forming a new government as he did in 2009.
That is accomplished through public discourse and debate. It happens by the silent majority of Israelis who find such views abhorrent convincing some of Lieberman’s supporters to change their minds and marginalizing the rest. We’ve seen that process take place in many countries.
Lieberman is an embarrassment, but he is also a danger, one that needs to be confronted. It’s up to Israelis to do it, but it’s certainly a process that we in the Diaspora can contribute to and encourage. It’s time we do so.