People who advocate on behalf of Israel are all telling me the same thing: Their job just got much, much harder.
The reason can be explained in two words: Avigdor Lieberman.
Lieberman is the outspoken member of Knesset from the Yisrael Beiteinu Party. Prior to the March election, he called for the expulsion of Israeli Arabs and mandatory loyalty oaths from Israeli Arabs in exchange for the right to vote. He demanded that Arab Knesset members who met with leaders of Hamas or criticized Israel during the Gaza War be tried for treason and executed.
When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu selected Lieberman as foreign minister, he set Israel on a collision course with American Jewry. That course could be reversible, but it is treacherous.
“Oy,” was the one-word answer I got from a leading pro-Israel activist last week when I asked him how he suspects the Lieberman appointment will go down with American Jews. At a time when Israel faces an existential enemy in a nuclear-weaponized Iran, immediate terror threats on its borders from Hezbollah and Hamas and a diplomatic stalemate with Palestinians riven between Hamas and Fatah, the country needs all the friends it can get. The last thing it needs is an image crisis. And Lieberman, with his shady past allegiances to Meir Kahane’s Kach Party and his record of patently discriminatory statements against Israel’s largest minority is a walking, talking image crisis.
Lieberman is like an image-crisis infomercial: just when you think that’s all, just wait, there’s more! He has expressed a cavalier attitude toward American peace initiatives, dismissing President George W. Bush’s Annapolis conference out of hand in his first major address after taking office. He has called for what would essentially be the carpet-bombing of Palestinian areas following terrorist attacks. And — but wait, there’s more! — this week Israeli police announced that an ongoing investigation into multiple bribery charges against him will likely result in an indictment.
“Don’t worry about Lieberman,” an Israeli friend told me. “He’ll be in court for the next four years.”
But Israel’s professional supporters in America are worried about Lieberman, though they won’t say so publicly — in fact, they will deny it publicly.
They’re worried because for 61 years, Israel’s sales pitch to American Jews, and, by extension, to all Americans, can be summed up in two words: We’re you.
Israel stands for the American ideals of democracy, peace, coexistence and justice. Israel is America’s brand extended into a neighborhood of oil thugs and religious fanatics.
Israel’s positive values resonate deeply with America’s Jews and with most Americans. That’s why every Gallup poll since 1988 — when the group first starting asking the question — show a decided majority of Americans have more sympathy with Israel in the Middle East crisis than with the Palestinians. Interestingly, since 2006, the number who side with Israel has remained steady at 59 percent — despite two wars and what many American Jewish organizations claim is ongoing bias against Israel in the media and on campuses.
One could argue that such numbers disprove my point: that making Avigdor Lieberman Israel’s diplomatic front man won’t shake this support. But that support rests not on the vicissitudes of Mideast wars and politics, but on the bedrock of shared values. Damage those, and the whole partnership is at risk.
Before he took office, Netanyahu had a chance to appoint a right-leaning minister who would have epitomized, rather than jeopardized, those values: Natan Sharansky. Sharansky is the former refusenik who stood up to the Soviet empire and embodies in deed and in eloquence the Israel that American Jews most love. He would have been a center-right Abba Eban. But Israel’s political circus being what it is, Bibi needed the rich bloc of seats that only Lieberman could offer. And Bibi, as one pro-Israel activist told me, likely believes he could use Lieberman to keep the carnivorous right in line while the heavy diplomatic lifting falls to the prime minister and his defense minister, Ehud Barak. One more fringe benefit: next to Lieberman, Bibi and Barak look like Schweitzer and Gandhi.
Now that the deed is done, the prime minister must be aware he needs some damage control. So Lieberman penned a kind of retraction for The Jewish Week that attempted to soften his previous stands. He wants all Israelis to sign a loyalty oath, not just Arabs. And he didn’t so much want to force Arabs out as to ensure a Jewish majority. Besides, he wrote, he is for a two-state solution, so how could he be so bad?
If The Jewish Week piece signaled Lieberman’s move to true moderation, that’s well and good. But having heard him take a much harder line toward his fellow citizens at a private gathering in Los Angeles last year, I have my doubts as to the depth of his conversion.
His inauguration speech didn’t do much to allay my fears. It staked out what seems to be a rational explanation for policies that would quickly put Israel at odds with the administration of Barack Obama, a president who received almost 80 percent of the Jewish vote.
“Those who think that through concessions they will gain respect and peace are wrong,” the new minister said. “It’s the other way around; it will lead to more wars. By uttering the word peace 20 times a day we won’t make peace. Those who want peace should prepare for war and be strong.”
If Lieberman wants to change Israel’s image abroad so that it no longer stands for peace and reconciliation but for resistance, the tyranny of the majority, diplomatic intransigence and self-righteous victimhood, I have news for him. There’s already a name for people with that image, and it can be summed up in two words: the Palestinians.
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