• Politics

How Israel’s Anger Issues Hurt Us All

5 minute read
Joe Klein

One by one, in reverse order, the leaders of Israel’s top three political parties appeared on television the night of the Feb. 10 elections and declared victory. This was clever, since none of them had really won. Avigdor Lieberman, whose extreme anti-Arab Yisrael Beitenu party finished third, went on first. His party had surged in the final weeks and would now, he boasted, be “the key” to forming a majority coalition in the 120-seat Knesset. Maybe. Benjamin Netanyahu, whose Likud party finished second, appeared next. He had won, he said, because Likud was the leading right-wing party and conservatives of various stripes had gained a majority of seats in the Knesset. But Netanyahu had been expecting a big victory; his support had plummeted in the last days. Finally, there was Tzipi Livni, whose moderate Kadima party won one more seat than Likud … but didn’t really win either, because Netanyahu was right: he would probably have an easier path to building a parliamentary majority than Livni would.

Israelis were both irked and entranced by the results. It had been an uninspiring campaign. There was no Barack Obama in the race; even Lieberman, the hot candidate, was a tepid speaker. For Israelis, a nation of political junkies, the aftermath will be more fun than the campaign: there will be a fascinating dance as the various players wheel and backstab in search of a governing coalition. For the rest of the world, however, the results are cause for concern. And for the Obama Administration, Israel presents an even greater foreign policy challenge than before–especially if, as expected, Lieberman’s extremists join the government.

If none of the winners really won, the loser–the Israeli left–clearly lost. The traditional liberal parties, Labor and Meretz, were decimated. Their supporters fled to the moderate Livni in the hope of thwarting a Netanyahu victory. After the war in Gaza, the peace movement seemed pointless: the Palestinians were shattered, unable to govern themselves, much less negotiate a peace. It was telling that the best-known figure on the Israeli left was Labor’s Ehud Barak, the man who had planned and executed the war.

Of all the election-night orators, Lieberman appeared the most confident. His support had grown since the war, on the strength of Jewish anger at Israel’s indigenous Arabs, some of whom had cheered Hamas and waved Palestinian flags during the fighting. Among other things, Lieberman had suggested that Israel should fight Hamas as “the U.S. did with the Japanese”–which some people saw as raising the remarkable specter of innocent Israeli Arabs interned in concentration camps. “Lieberman has created a classic European anti-immigrant party,” said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator. “Only his supporters are the immigrants, and their targets are people who have been on this land forever.”

Indeed, much of Lieberman’s support came from the most recent immigrants–the Russians, the Ethiopians, the refugees from Islamic persecution. For them, Lieberman’s call for signed loyalty oaths by all Israelis, including Arabs, seemed an obvious requirement for citizenship. But there was also a cold fury among mainstream Israelis who had given Gaza back to the Palestinians only to find it ruled by Hamas, armed by Iran and lobbing missiles across the border on a daily basis. “We have to crush terror and eliminate Hamas,” Lieberman said on election night, laying out his price for joining any coalition. “There can be no cease-fire with Hamas. There can be no negotiations, direct or indirect.”

So who is this Lieberman, and where did he come from? Actually, from the same place as Livni and Netanyahu–from Likud. “Lieberman was Netanyahu’s chief of staff when Bibi was Prime Minister,” a veteran Likudnik told me. “He and Tzipi were also very close.” Lieberman left Netanyahu’s staff, turning right, in the late 1990s; Livni turned left, joining Ariel Sharon’s moderate Kadima party. But Livni made it clear that she would welcome Lieberman into a governing coalition if she won, which says something about the state of moderation in Israeli politics these days. In the hours after the election, it was assumed by the media and most politicians that Lieberman’s party would be asked to join any governing coalition, which says something about Israel’s growing isolation from the rest of the world.

It will be much harder now for the U.S. to continue its unambiguous support if Israel’s government prominently features a blatantly anti-Arab party. The ripples of Israeli intolerance will reverberate through the Middle East. It will make cooperation with Israel more difficult for moderate neighbors like Egypt and Jordan; it would make reconciliation with Israel impossible for Syria and Saudi Arabia.

There is an alternative, of course: a centrist coalition of Kadima, Likud and Labor. But that would require some real moderation and common sense, qualities overwhelmed by weariness and resentment in Israel’s dour winter of victory.


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