President Shimon Peres, during his visit to Britain three months ago, spent a good deal of his time reassuring senior British politicians and opinion-makers that a Likud government with Binyamin Netanyahu at its helm would not automatically mean the end of Israel’s involvement in the peace process.
That was before the surge of Yisrael Beitenu in the polls and Avigdor Lieberman’s emergence as the new kingmaker of Israelis politics. Now the urbane Netanyahu with his American-accented English seems almost cuddly by comparison.
Over the last month, when it began to seem inevitable that Lieberman would usurp Ehud Barak as the leader of Israel’s third largest party, reports were written in the political bureaus of the Tel Aviv embassies, and international media attention was suddenly centered on the once unlikely contender. From being a marginal politician leading a fringe party, Lieberman was elevated in the capitals of both the western and Arab worlds to being the focal point of the elections.
Observers focused on his strident and virulent rhetoric and his radical platform, calling for loyalty tests that will effectively disenfranchise Israel’s Arab citizens. Most writers (outside the Arab press) were careful not to brand him as a racist or a fascist, but the inference was there.
How, it was asked, could a government led by ‘hardline’ Netanyahu, with the terrible Lieberman as a senior partner, carry on the diplomatic process with the Palestinian Authority, or effectively engage with a new administration in Washington led by a man who memorably said that being pro-Israel does not have to mean being pro-Likud?
But more discerning commentators noted that Lieberman is not just another Israeli right-wing isolationist settler leader who believes that Israel should assume its biblical rights and not care what the goyim say. His allegiances are less to the US-led West than to the former Soviet empire from which he came. His electoral base is mainly immigrants, like him, from the former Soviet Union; indeed, the world leader they now compare him to is Vladimir Putin.
It is too early to say whether Lieberman’s gains will cause lasting damage to Israel’s diplomatic standing. The Arab media has certainly portrayed his rise as proof of Israel’s inherent racism, but Western governments will most likely adopt a diplomatic policy of wait-and-see. Israeli diplomats are already trying to allay their fears, saying that Lieberman’s declarations during the election campaign will be replaced now by pragmatism and that he is much more interested in issues such as electoral reform and pushing through a civil marriage law than actively pursuing his policies against Israeli Arabs.
Both prospective prime ministers, Netanyahu and Livni, are well aware of currents abroad. At present they are courting him ardently, but when the moment arrives to actually form a government, they could put aside their differences. In the interest of Israel’s international image and their own political interests, it would be better to join forces and leave Lieberman out in the cold.