The electoral success of Avigdor Lieberman’s right-wing party, Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel, Our Home) in Tuesday’s Israeli elections has caused consternation among British Jews.
The party emerged as Israel’s third most popular, winning a projected 15 seats. It wants a compulsory oath of loyalty by all Israeli citizens and the transfer of heavily populated Arab areas of Israel to the Palestinian Authority in return for the annexation of West Bank settlements.
A senior source involved in Israel advocacy in the UK said that “strong concern exists at a senior level within the Jewish community regarding the impact that a key role for Lieberman in the Israeli government would have on our ability to present Israel’s case”.
When Mr Lieberman visited the UK to raise funds recently, no one from the Board of Deputies or the Jewish Leadership Council would meet him.
Simon Hochhauser, president of the United Synagogue and an executive member of the Jewish Leadership Council, speaking in a personal capacity, said: “I think his views are appalling. It’s a great shame that he may well be part of the Israeli government of the future. I think it gives more excuses not only for those who are anti-Israel but those who are increasingly expressing antisemitic views.”
Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, senior rabbi of the Masorti movement, said Yisrael Beiteinu’s platform was “more than disturbing, it is horrifying. It seems to me a betrayal of values of the Declaration of Independence which offers a very explicit vision of equality for all the citizens of Israel, and of which Jews are rightly proud.”
However the citizenship test might be put, he said, “clearly there isn’t an embrace of Israel’s Arab citizens.
“It calls into question the democratic nature of the state of Israel as an open state which allows expression and articulation of difference and replaces it with what it is hard not to call a racist agenda.”
Rabbi Tony Bayfield, head of the Reform Movement, believed the vote for Yisrael Beiteinu reflected “a kind of defiant despair” among some Israelis. “Lieberman is the worst and most unpleasant manifestation of a right-wing nationalism by people who have given up hope about being able to do a deal with the Arab population.”
A higher profile for the Moldova-born politician, he added, “can only be damaging because that’s not an image with which many British Jews want to identify with or be identified by”.
But Brian Kerner, a former chairman of the United Jewish Israel Appeal and currently a JLC member, argued that Mr Lieberman was “portrayed as far more right-wing than he really is. He accepts a two-state solution and believes in the division of Jerusalem. The main thing is he wants people to swear allegiance to the Jewish state of Israel and I don’t think that’s unreasonable.” Andrew Balcombe, the Jerusalem-based chairman of the Zionist Federation, thought fears about the Yisrael Beiteinu founder “exaggerated. He got fewer votes than predicted”.
Pointing out that Mr Lieberman had been a deputy prime minister in Ehud Olmert’s government, he said that “people weren’t jumping up and down a year ago. He’s not suggesting that any Arabs move from their houses, he is suggesting the borders are redrawn. It’s not my view, but a large number of people think it’s a practical solution.”
But Rabbi Danny Rich, chief executive of Liberal Judaism, was worried by “the rise of Lieberman. Some of his reported views could threaten the stability of an Israel in which the Arab minority can thrive.”
Rosalind Preston, a former vice-president of the Board of Deputies, felt “deeply troubled that a Zionist state that was set up full of noble ideals should at this stage be prepared to vote in an extreme nationalist party. If they came into power, the chances of having a peaceful future, not only within Israel itself but with its neighbours, becomes even more unlikely.”
Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks said that any comment would be “premature until we know the shape of the governing coalition”.
Henry Grunwald, president of the Board of Deputies, said: “The result says more about the need for change in the Israeli voting system than anything else.”
Trevor Pears, executive chairman of the Pears Foundation, which has sponsored efforts to improve the integration of Israeli Arabs, said: “We hope that whatever the eventual make-up of the government, it will honour both the letter and the spirit of the Declaration of Independence in relation to the equal status of all Israel’s citizens.”