Rassegna Stampa Elezioni Israeliane 2009

Monitoraggio attraverso i media internazionali delle elezioni in Israele del Febbraio 2009

Grappling with the ‘Problem of Lieberman’

Posted by valentinabalzati su 7 aprile, 2009

Omar Karmi,  The National

RAMALLAH, WEST BANK // While the new right-wing Israeli government undoubtedly poses a challenge to the international community, with its continued refusal to commit to the two-state solution, it is the presence of Avigdor Lieberman, the new foreign minister, that poses the most interesting questions.

Mr Lieberman, a former nightclub bouncer who resides in the Nokdim settlement south of Bethlehem, is traditionally seen as the champion of Russian immigrants from among whom Yisrael Beiteinu, the party he leads, draws much of its support. But it is his radical positions on Israel’s Palestinian minority and the logic behind those positions that is challenging long-standing assumptions both in Israel and elsewhere.

Israel’s new foreign minister, unlike most Israeli right-wingers, is not ideologically opposed to a Palestinian state or even a division of Jerusalem. He, like a majority of Israeli policymakers, wants to hang on to as many settlements in occupied territory as possible. But where he differs significantly from political orthodoxy in Israel is how he has taken to heart the oft-heard demographic “problem” – that in historical Palestine, Palestinians now outnumber Israeli Jews – and holding on to the occupied territories will threaten the Jewish majority.

Mr Lieberman considers Israel’s one million-strong Palestinian minority an equal threat to Israel and has proposed that to secure a stable and unchallenged Jewish majority, Israel would redraw its 1967 borders and hand over territory adjacent to the West Bank with high Palestinian population density to Palestinian Authority rule.

Furthermore, he also proposes a loyalty law that in theory would apply to everyone, yet is clearly aimed at the Palestinian minority. Although the details of such a law, as well as how loyalty would be defined, remain unclear, Mr Lieberman spelt out what he saw as a consequence of any such law at a campaign rally in Haifa in February, where he said that “without loyalty there can be no citizenship”.

Mr Lieberman has thus set his stall out against the main ethnic minority in his own country to secure Israel as a Jewish state. In doing so, he has invited accusations of racism but also propelled his party to a position as the third best represented in parliament and himself to foreign minister.

And therein lies the Problem of Lieberman. It is tempting to characterise him as a radical populist, but his rhetoric clearly mirrors what many Israelis feel, namely that the Palestinian minority in Israel should be treated as a fifth column and that Israel should prioritise its Jewishness over democratic values.

To Palestinian citizens of Israel, the minority has always been viewed and treated that way and Mr Lieberman is only reaping the benefit of spelling out what are already both official and common attitudes. From 1948 to 1966, Palestinians in Israel lived under military rule that allowed them little freedom of movement and no recourse to civil law. Large swathes of land were confiscated to make room for new Jewish immigrants. The situation has improved since then, but Palestinians still complain of discrimination in budget allocations and in the health and education sectors, and the minority is the poorest and least educated sector in Israeli society.

“Lieberman only gives voice to what is already a very racist mentality [in Israel] against Palestinian citizens,” said Johnny Mansur, a Haifa historian. “This mentality exists because Israel has never resolved the question of whether it is possible to define itself as a Jewish state and at the same time offer full rights to non-Jewish citizens.”

Yossi Alpher, an Israeli analyst, accepts that Israel has yet to resolve the position of non-Jewish citizens in a state that defines itself as Jewish. But he says Mr Lieberman is only posing that question now because he is taking political advantage of growing Jewish suspicions of the Palestinian minority.

“Israel has not seriously begun to deal with the role of the non-Jewish minorities in Israel and it is the biggest problem that will face us after the creation of a Palestinian state. Until then we can hardly ask Israel’s Arab citizens to prove their loyalty to a state that is at conflict with their own people. Lieberman wants them to do that now. That’s problematic.”

However, Mr Mansur said growing Israeli suspicions of the Palestinian minority is only occurring because that community is finding its voice and is asking Israel to clarify what kind of a state it intends to be.

“Many Israelis are uncomfortable with being confronted with the discrimination its Palestinian citizens suffer because they like to think Israel is a democratic country. Lieberman is posing a direct challenge to Palestinians in Israel, but also to Israelis who believe their state is democratic.”

With all the controversy accompanying him, it therefore seems surprising that Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, chose Mr Lieberman as his foreign minister, in effect Israel’s face to the world.

Mr Alpher said foreign policy in Israel is traditionally controlled by the prime minister and defence minister and did not expect Mr Lieberman to have much influence. Nevertheless, he said, “Netanyahu ignored the damage that the very appointment of Lieberman does to the image of Israel.”

Certainly it is hard to imagine Mr Lieberman being welcomed in many capitals around the world without controversy following him. And in that case, say some analysts, supporters of Israel will come under new kinds of pressure.

“Supporters of Israel will worry that [Mr Lieberman’s] extreme positions will now make support for Israel not only a political issue, but an ethical one,” said Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian analyst.

Mr Khatib said one reason for the rise of Mr Lieberman was that the international community has never held Israel accountable for its “unacceptable and illegal” treatment of its Palestinian minority.

But in his new position, Mr Lieberman may unwittingly ensure that a spotlight is finally shone on the situation of non-Jews in Israel and on Israel’s self-proclaimed status as the region’s only democracy.




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