Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July 2009, pages 12-13
Israel’s New Right-Wing Government
Bouncer in Jerusalem
By Sam Bahour
THOUGH hawkish Binyamin Netanyahu came in second in Israel’s last elections, he was tapped by Israel’s president to form a new government. With his coalition now in place, he is off and running. But where is he running to? Netanyahu is no newcomer to Israeli politics. He has even been prime minister before, at a rather pivotal point in history. He led the government from 1996 to 1999, after a Jewish extremist assassinated Yitzhak Rabin for signing a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
Many see Netanyahu as culpable in the collapse of the Oslo peace accords, since he had rejected them from the outset. Some even found Netanyahu culpable in Rabin’s death by inciting public fears that the peace process left Israel at risk. This time around, post-Oslo, he is making history again by joining forces with another Israeli party leader who did well in Israel’s latest elections, Moldova-born Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s David Duke.
Lieberman has many problems with the Palestinians of the occupied territory, but is most conspicuously known for his desire to offload the Palestinians still residing inside Israel (one-fifth of Israel’s citizenry, albeit third- or fourth-class). In the pure Jewish state of Lieberman’s fantasy, these people contribute no added value whatever.
This is the man who will be the lynchpin of Netanyahu’s coalition.
For anyone yearning for an Israeli government with the courage and the will to end Israel’s 41-year military occupation of Palestinians, the long-anticipated appointment of Lieberman to minister of foreign affairs leaves much to be desired. The former nightclub bouncer is referred to, only half in jest, by an Israeli friend of mine as “Doberman.”
For Western onlookers, it was undoubtedly odd that the top vote-getter, Tzipi Livni, was marginalized in favor of the runner-up, said to be in a stronger position to form a governing coalition.
Livni rather quickly conceded, opting to join the opposition. She made a smart move, as much of the world repudiates Israel’s dangerous drift to the right. Livni, at best, would have been a mere fig leaf for an extremist government. For Palestinians, meantime, none of the political acrobatics means much. Livni’s entire political history is just as violent toward Palestinians as Netanyahu’s, despite her peace-lexicon faÃ§ade.
Palestinians find themselves in a familiar posture, waiting—or more like Waiting for Godot. I daresay even Beckett would have balked at this one. Palestinians have been dispossessed, occupied and brutalized year in, year out since 1948 by an Israel that continues to talk peace while waging war. The roster of political players changes, but Israeli intransigence remains.
One thing Palestinians are not waiting for is some enlightened Israeli prime minister who will step forward and end their misery; they’ve already seen all kinds: from Israel’s first prime minister, Polish-born David Ben-Gurion, who candidly said, “We must expel the Arabs and take their places”; to Israel’s first woman prime minister, Ukrainian-born Golda Meir, acclaimed for her infamous remark that “There is no such thing as Palestinians”; to Israel’s first native-born prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, who, during the first intifada, ordered his military to “break the [Palestinian demonstrators’] bones” and then went on several years later to sign the historic Oslo peace agreement—which was inordinately date-driven—only to announce a few days after signing it that there are no sacred dates. Palestinians have also been around the track once before with Netanyahu’s overly-sleek, propaganda-driven personality.
Now Netanyahu seems to have a new gambit: diverting our attention from the ever-more- entrenched military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip with an “economy first” approach to peace.
The message, today, is clearer than ever before: Israel’s new government will let the occupied Palestinians live, but just barely, and in a political headlock. Netanyahu and Lieberman evidently forget one revealing chapter in their own history, a lesson accidentally taught, and at great cost to all, by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon: There cannot be peace and security until Israel ends its occupation.
For true negotiations to begin, the Israelis must remove the boot of military occupation from the necks of Palestinians. Then and only then can these two Semitic cousins sit down and carve out a model for peaceful coexistence. If international law was respected, the framework for a final resolution to this pestering conflict is already on the books by way of dozens of U.N. resolutions dating back to 1947; however, today, the final number of states to emerge from peace negotiations is less important than making sure the Palestinian people survive to enjoy a post-conflict reality.
We are left with the central axiom Israeli prime ministers love to deny: There is no military solution to this conflict. Israel has proved beyond a reasonable doubt that it cannot win by relentless military force, and the Palestinians—against all odds—refuse to lose the quest for their freedom and equal rights. One more campaign to cover up Israel’s continuing occupation and the attendant war crimes only sets the stage for more death, more destruction, and more fruitless waiting. The world must act rationally today to salvage what remains to be salvaged. President Obama has better roles to play than a 21st century Godot.
Sam Bahour is a Palestinian-American businessman from Youngstown, OH who lives in the occupied West Bank and is co-editor of Homeland: Oral History of Palestine and Palestinians. He may be reached at <[email protected]>. ❑
A Little Red Light
By Uri Avnery
Perhaps Avigdor Lieberman is only a passing episode in the annals of the State of Israel. Perhaps the fire he is trying to ignite will flicker briefly and go out by itself. Or perhaps the police investigations into the grave corruption affair of which he is suspected will lead to his removal from the public sphere.
But the opposite is also possible. In April he promised his acolytes that the next elections would bring him to power.
Perhaps Lieberman will prove to be an “Israbluff”’ (a term he himself likes to use), and be revealed, behind the frightful faÃ§ade, as nothing more than a run-of-the-mill impostor.
Perhaps this Lieberman will indeed disappear, to be replaced by another, even worse Lieberman.
Either way, we should candidly confront the phenomenon he represents. If one believes that his utterances sound fascist, one has to ask oneself: is there a possibility that a fascist regime might come to power in Israel?
The initial gut feeling is a resounding NO. In Israel? In the Jewish State? After the Holocaust which Nazi fascism brought upon us? Can one even imagine that Israelis would become something like the Nazis?
When Yeshayahu Leibowitz coined, many years ago, the term “Judeo-Nazis,” the entire country blew up. Even many of his admirers thought that this time the turbulent professor had gone too far.
But Lieberman’s slogans do justify him in retrospect.
Some would dismiss Lieberman’s achievement in the recent elections. After all, his “Israel is Our Home” party is not the first one to appear from nowhere and win an impressive 15 seats. Exactly the same number was won by the Dash party of Gen. Yigael Yadin in 1977 and the Shinui party of Tommy Lapid in 2003—and both disappeared soon after without leaving a trace.
But Lieberman’s voters are not like those of Yadin and Lapid, who were ordinary citizens fed up with some particular aspects of Israeli life. Many of his voters are immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who look upon their “Ivett,” an immigrant from the ex-Soviet land of Moldova, as a representative of their “sector.” Although many of them brought with them from their former homeland a right-wing, anti-democratic and even racist world view, they do not pose by themselves a danger to Israeli democracy.
But the additional power that turned Lieberman’s party into the third-largest faction in the new Knesset came from another sort of voter: Israeli-born youngsters, many of whom had recently taken part in the Gaza War. They voted for him because they believed that he would kick the Arab citizens out of Israel, and the Palestinians out of the entire historical country.
These are not marginal people, fanatical or underprivileged, but normal youngsters who finished high school and served in the army, who dance in the discothÃ¨ques and intend to found families. If such people are voting en masse for a declared racist with a pungent fascist odor, the phenomenon cannot be ignored.
Fifty years ago I wrote a book called The Swastika, in which I described how the Nazis took over Germany. I argued in the book that Nazism was not a specifically German disease, that in certain circumstances any country in the world could be infected by this virus—including our own state. In order to avoid this danger, one had to understand the underlying causes for the development of the disease.
To the assertion that I am “obsessed” by this matter, that I see this danger lurking in every corner, I answer: not true. For years I have avoided dealing with this subject. But it is true that I carry in my head a little red light that comes on when I sense the danger.
This light is now blinking.
What caused the Nazi disease to break out in the past? Why did it break out at a certain time and not at another? Why in Germany and not in another country suffering from similar problems?
The answer is that fascism is a special phenomenon, unlike any other. It is not an “extreme Right,” an extension of “nationalist” or “conservative” attitudes. Fascism is the opposite of conservatism in many ways, even though it may appear in a conservative disguise. Also, it is not a radicalization of ordinary, normal nationalism, which exists in every nation.
Fascism is a unique phenomenon and has unique traits: the notion of being a “superior nation,” the denial of the humanity of other nations and national minorities, a cult of the leader, a cult of violence, disdain for democracy, an adoration of war, contempt for accepted morality. All these attributes together create the phenomenon, which has no agreed scientific definition.
According to my perception, a fascist revolution breaks out when a very special personality meets with a very special national situation.
Is the State of Israel approaching an existential crisis—moral, political, economic—that could leave it an endangered nation? Can Lieberman, or someone who could take his place, turn out to be a demonic personality like Hitler, or at least Mussolini?
In our present situation there are some dangerous indications. The last war showed a further decline in our moral standards. The hatred toward Israel’s Arab minority is on the rise, and so is the hatred toward the occupied Palestinian people who are suffering a slow strangulation. In some circles, the cult of brute force is gaining strength. The democratic regime is in a never-ending crisis. The economic situation may descend into chaos, so that the masses will long for a “strongman.” And the belief that we are a “chosen people” is already deeply rooted.
These indications may not necessarily lead to disaster. Absolutely not. History is full of nations in crisis that recovered and returned to normalcy. Besides the real Hitler, who rose to historic heights, there were probably hundreds of other Hitlers, no less crazy and no less talented, who ended their life as bank tellers or frustrated writers, because they did not meet a historic opportunity.
I have a strong faith in the resilience of Israeli society and Israeli democracy. I believe that we have hidden strengths that will come to the fore in an hour of need.
Nothing “must” happen. But anything “can” happen. And the little red light won’t stop blinking.
Uri Avnery is a former Knesset member and a founder of the Israeli peace group Gush Shalom <http://www.gush-shalom.org>. This is an abridged version of an article distributed April 18, 2009.