Early in this campaign, when Avigdor Liberman’s “Israel Beitenu” party was getting around 10 MKs in the polls, I estimated that its true potential is around 14-15 MKs. Recent polls show Liberman getting there, and more. Except for Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Liberman is the only party leader to enjoy a real bump in the polls consequent the war in Gaza. There is almost no doubt now that he will be part of Benjamin Netanyau’s government.
Liberman represents an evolution of the right-wing politics in Israel. For lack of a better name, I think we can call it “Neo-Conservative Zionism”. Netanyahu represents the “old” conservative Zionism – which opposed any negotiations with the Arab world and any territorial concessions. This position has reached a dead end. Nobody seriously believes that Israel will be able to hold on to the West Bank for much longer. International pressure against Israel has been building up since the first Intifada, and Israel was forced, step by step, to agree to negotiations and to evacuate land. Even the Bush administration openly accepted the idea of a Palestinian state and with Obama in the White House, the pressure on the next PM will get stronger.
What I mean to say, and this is not a new idea, is that the Right is winning the electoral battle but loosing the political one. In this sense, Liberman is the only politician who offers a real conservative vision these days. And it’s a scary one.
Liberman accepts the idea of a Palestinian state. He understands it to be inevitable, but more importantly – he realizes that the Israeli public is willing to admit to it, so long that the idea is presented with a complete vision of the future.
The Left has this vision: it’s the “New Middle East”, a peaceful region, where Israelis and Arabs share economic interests and work together for a better future. So far, the attempts to push forward in this direction were a miserable failure. But the Right never offered any alternative.
But Liberman does. He says: there will be no “New Middle East”. The hostilities will go on. The Arabs’ goal has been – and will remain – to destroy the Jewish state. We are the front of the battle of civilizations.
All this is not that new. But Liberman goes on and adds a very interesting point: For him, the very cosmopolitan vision of the state of Israel is in itself part of the danger. In other words, the first battle in this clash of civilizations is not necessarily to fight the Hamas, but to protect the Jewish nature of the state of Israel. That’s why he promotes the idea of moving some of the Arab towns into the borders of the new Palestinian state, thus changing the demographic balance between Jews and Arabs in Israel. That’s why he is leading the charge against the Arab MK’s in the Knesset, and that’s why he demands that every citizen will pledge his loyalty to the state (and immediately brands anyone who opposes this idea as a traitor – for what other reason might one have for such an objection?)
This is the deal Liberman offers the Jewish public: in exchange for leaving the West Bank, you will get a more Jewish state. Jews will have a more clear majority, and more privileges over the none Jewish minorities. You will be better off because you are Jews. And unlike Netanyau’s ideas, this kind of approach appeals to Jews both on the Left and the Right. Even Meretz supporters might find this appealing –after all, he is in favor of a Palestinian state…
The price is democracy. Just by introducing this discourse, Liberman is able to bring the tensions between Jews and Arabs to new highs (and that serves him well), and put in question the very notion that Arabs might be equal-rights citizens of this state.
I was once in a press meeting with Liberman. Some questions were asked about the rights of minorities in his plan. To this Liberman answered: “I am here to protect the rights of the minority that pays its taxes and goes to the army”. The meaning was clear to everyone in the room. And history has taught us that this slippery slope only starts with minorities; Libeman never hid his problems with the Jewish radical Left as well.
The label “Fascism” is thrown into the debate too easily. But add the words “Italians” or “Germans” to some of Liberman’s phrases, and you’ll get very close ideas sounded by the Extreme-Right in Europe in the 20′s and 30′s.
The fact that Liberman is getting stronger shows in what dangerous times we live in, though I am not sure that he will be able to become Prime Minister one day. His Russian appearance makes him too “foreign” for most Israelis. The irony is that for him, racism is a double-edge sword. It is Liberman’s ideas, however, that present the real political challenge facing us these days.