Lieberman and a quandary for the diaspora

Can we meekly support a far-right minister in Israel while mobilising against far-right candidates here?

By Bernard Josephs, April 7, 2009

It is hardly surprising that the appointment of right-wing firebrand Avigdor Lieberman as Israel’s new Foreign Minister has given many Israelis and their supporters nervous tremors.

For one thing, diplomacy is normally regarded as an essential qualification for any Foreign Minister and the Yisrael Beitenu leader is certainly no diplomat. Can a man who publicly tells the President of Egypt to “go to hell” and calls for a compulsory loyalty test likely to result in loss of citizenship for many Israeli Arabs, really be a suitable representative of Israel on the world stage?

Already under investigation for alleged white-collar crime (during which, innocent or not, ministers generally retreat from front-line politics), Lieberman’s appointment is clearly not based on his fitness for office but the result of coalition horse-trading.

It is difficult to imagine any of his predecessors using such derisive and insulting language in a message to a foreign leader, or so deliberately alienating Israel’s Arab communities. Renowned former Foreign Ministers such as Abba Eban and Yigal Allon will be turning in their graves — as will Chaim Weitzmann, Israel’s first President, who pointed out that Israel “would be judged by the peoples of the world by how it treats its Arab citizens.”

Lieberman was of course appointed by a former distinguished Foreign Minister. Binyamin Netanyahu — who occupied the post between 2002 and 2003 — must be aware that an unbridled Lieberman could go dangerously off message.

So how did Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party achieve such electoral success? Well, in a country battered by rocket fire from Palestinian terrorists and subjected to constant, world-wide demonisation, the party was able to tap into that part of society that sees its Israeli Arab neighbours as a dangerous fifth column.

It also gained support from some, not necessarily right-wing, voters by campaigning for issues such as civil marriage, electoral reform and a land swap in which Arab-dominated areas of the Galilee would be handed to the Palestinians in exchange for Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

However, Lieberman’s prominent appointment is damaging for those who advance Israel’s cause as an embattled liberal democracy dedicated to the equality of all its citizens. Yossi Klein Halevy of the Jerusalem-based Adelson Institute of Strategic Studies believes that Lieberman “is riding an ugly wave of resentment among many Jewish Israelis toward the Arab-Israeli minority.”

Of course, the appointment of Israel’s ministers is Israel’s business. But, among those in the diaspora concerned to show their solidarity with the Jewish state in an increasingly difficult atmosphere, such significant developments can never simply be shrugged off.

In this connection, it is bizarre to observe the British Jewish community being called upon by its leaders to mobilise against a resurgent far right at home while those same leaders will inevitably urge us to welcome a far-right Israeli politician, when, as seems certain, Avigdor Lieberman visits the UK.

The Board of Deputies is currently staging a campaign against the British National Party here ahead of the summer’s Euro-elections. But, asked to state its position on Israel’s Foreign Minister, a spokesman for the Board declined to comment.

Beyond the Board of Deputies, some Anglo-Jewish leaders have criticised Netanyahu’s inclusion of Lieberman in his cabinet while underlining their fundamental support of Israel. Others are less exercised over the matter. Zionist Federation chair Andrew Balcombe, believes fears about Lieberman to be “exaggerated.”

Balcombe might be right. The weight of office, and pressure from Prime Minister Netanyahu, may bring about a change of tone. For the sake of Israel and its hard-pressed supporters abroad, this is an outcome devoutly to be wished.

Bernard Josephs is a former JC news editor

Last updated: 3:48pm, April 7 2009