The rise of Avigdor Lieberman

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Israel is becoming a right-wing country. That is the most significant thing you need to know about Tuesday’s election returns.

In a sense, this is no surprise. Israel has been moving right for years. It was not until 1977 -- almost 30 years after the establishment of the state -- that the right won its first election, when Menachem Begin became prime minister. And in the 32 years since then, the right-wing Likud Party (or its Kadima spinoff) have controlled the government for 24 years, with the Labor Party only in power for eight.

No wonder the peace process has foundered in the years since Labor Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shook PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat’s hand and began negotiations toward a two-state solution. The Israeli right opposed Rabin’s moves from the get-go and fought him tooth and nail. A far-right activist assassinated Rabin for what he considered the selling out of the national patrimony. And in many right-wing quarters in Israel, that assassin is still considered a hero.


On Tuesday, a clear majority of Israelis chose right-wing parties again. No one claimed the Rabin mantle during the campaign, not even the Labor Party candidate, Ehud Barak. All the major candidates endorsed the recent Gaza war. The strong showing by Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu was based on his view that the war, though welcome, was nonetheless too little and too late.

In other words, the campaign was little different from other recent campaigns: flag-waving, populism and fear-mongering (over Iran, the Palestinians and global anti-Semitism).

But there was one novel element. That was the candidacy of Avigdor Lieberman, head of the Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) party, which was on track to win a stunning 16 Knesset seats.

Lieberman ran a frankly anti- Arab campaign. His slogan was “No citizenship without loyalty.” He promised to implement it by demanding that Arabs living in Israel sign oaths of loyalty to the Jewish state.

No one knows how many Arabs would sign such an oath. It is one thing for a Palestinian to be a peaceful, productive citizen of Israel. It is quite another to expect him to sign a document that stipulates loyalty to Israel as a Jewish state.

It is also insulting, as it is clearly intended to be. (Remember the huge controversy about loyalty oaths in this country in the 1940s and 1950s? And those were not limited to members of a particular ethnic group.)


Then there is the question of what would happen to those Arabs who wouldn’t sign. In theory, they could be stripped of citizenship. They would lose the right to vote, along with other privileges of citizenship, leaving them resident aliens in a land their forebears have lived in for a millennium.

The good news is that Lieberman’s plan is not going to be adopted, not when Israel is worried about President Obama’s level of affection for the Jewish state. Moreover, it is hard to imagine that a majority of Israelis would tolerate such an unabashedly racist law.

Nonetheless, it is very worrisome that it is this plan that produced Lieberman’s huge vote. His party now has more seats than Labor, the party that presided over the country for its first three decades. And his support skews young. In preelection high school polls, he swept every school that was surveyed.

Not all of Lieberman’s policies are right wing. He favors separation of synagogue and state, for instance. He promises civil marriage and an end to the Orthodox monopoly of control on all matters relating to the Jewish religion. He even favors the two-state solution, which he views more as a means of preserving ethnic purity than establishing peace. He’ll take smaller, as long as it’s Jewish.

But it is his anti-Arab views that won him his big vote. His voters apparently like his promise to treat Arab members of the Knesset as “collaborators” who should be dealt with like collaborators with the Nazis. They like his pledge to create “separation of the two nations and the creation of homogenous states.” They agree that “the biggest problem of the 21st century is how to deal with minorities. Every country where you have two languages, two religions and two races, you have conflict.”

In short, Lieberman is Israel’s Jorg Haider or Jean-Marie Le Pen. And he almost surely will be a part of the next government.


This may not affect the peace process, the fate of which rests less on the makeup of Israel’s government than on Obama’s level of determination. Obama has indicated that he wants to have the United States play the role of “honest broker” between Israelis and Palestinians rather than continue to act like “Israel’s lawyer,” as former Middle East mediator Aaron David Miller described the U.S. stance under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

So far the signs are good that Obama intends to play that role. The appointment of George Mitchell, who brokered the Northern Ireland agreement, as special envoy to the Middle East is a promising indication that Obama intends to push both Israelis and Palestinians hard to get to an agreement.

Lieberman cannot stop that from happening. Obama will be the one to determine whether the peace process is resuscitated or simply expires.

No, it is not concern about the state of the peace process that will keep many of Israel’s supporters from sleeping as they contemplate this year’s Israeli election. It is the state of Israel’s soul.

M.J. Rosenberg is director of policy analysis for the Israel Policy Forum.