What does the latest political shift to the Right within Israel’s ruling coalition portend for Palestinians and Israeli Arabs ? Signaled by the May 26th appointment of two-time Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman as Defense Minister, this shift to the Right is at present more symbolic than policy-oriented. But in a country where there is a powerful relationship between rhetoric, symbols, and political-military action the situation could change quickly.
For Israel’s Jewish majority, not much in their daily lives will change. But for the country’s Arab citizens, who comprise some 20% of the state’s eight million inhabitants, political and military decisions made by a more ideologically-driven government ruled by extreme nationalists will have serious implications. And while it is is too early to predict what the implications will be for the Palestinians — both within Israel proper and within the Territories — one doesn’t need the gift of prophecy to see that the fallout will be negative.
In the first few days of this latest shift rightward there were indications of what both the Israeli Arabs and the Palestinians can expect. Netanyahu’s appointment of Lieberman put a governmental stamp of approval on the inflammatory rhetoric and harsh military measures that Lieberman advocates.
Lieberman, who served in the Israeli Army as a corporal, replaces decorated general Moshe Yaalon. Yaalon, like almost all of Israel’s previous defense ministers, is a career soldier. Lieberman, in contrast, is a career politician. And Israelis from an array of political parties are wondering if this signals a move away from military professionalism to ideologically-driven decision making. Organizing among his fellow Russian immigrants to Israel Lieberman founded and led his party Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is our Home) in the late 1990s. Their first campaign slogan was “no loyalty, no citizenship,” a reference to what Lieberman deemed the questionable loyalty of Israeli Arabs.
Though outgoing Defense Minister Yaalon was a member of the Likud party, Prime Minister Netanyahu, leader of the party, dismissed him from his post in order to bring Lieberman’s party into an expanded coalition and increase the government’s parliamentary majority. Yaalon, who joined the Likud as a result of his disillusionment with the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinians, was perceived as ‘tough’ on security issues, but he was very much a pragmatist. Lieberman and his allies on the Right — including the religious right — do not strike observers as either realists or pragmatists, but as ideologues.
Announcing his resignation Yaalon said: “I fought with all my might against phenomena of extremism, violence and racism in Israeli society that threaten its fortitude…. these forces are trickling into the military. Senior politicians in the country have chosen incitement and divisiveness of the Israeli society instead of unifying and connecting.”
What was Yaalon referring to in these remarks?
His Israeli audience understood that the extremism Yaalon referred to is both the overall escalation of extremist rhetoric within the country, and, more immediately, the support by Lieberman’s secular party and by politicians of Settler-affiliated Jewish parties of extreme violence committed by settlers and soldiers. In March, in an encounter in Hebron, an Israeli soldier subdued and captured a Palestinian fighter who had attacked another Israeli soldier. And after the fighter was subdued he was shot in the head and died. This was contrary to the IDF’s official code of conduct, and the soldier was subsequently charged with the shooting and ordered to stand trial. In April a military court charged him with manslaughter.
General Eisenkot, the army chief of staff, made a public issue of this enforcement of the military code. The right-wing reaction was well-described by The Jerusalem Post: “Politicians – including Lieberman – rushed to the support of the soldier, and criticized Eisenkot and the army’s decision.”
Though the IDF and its chief of staff have a permanently high approval rating among Israeli Jewish society, Lieberman’s criticism of Eisenkot was widely echoed and supported. Some even wanted to declare the accused soldier a national hero. This was the context within which Yaalon commented to reporters a few days after his resignation that “Israel had lost its moral compass.” By celebrating the action of the soldier, Yaalon implied, Israel was jettisoning its moral code.
In Israel one expects a comment of this sort from a spokesperson of the country’s beleaguered Left, but not from a Likud minister.
Lieberman’s support of extreme measures comes as no surprise to students of Israeli politics. Among the most egregious of his many rhetorical attacks on Palestinians, and on the Arabs of the other Middle Eastern states, was a statement he made in 2001 when he was serving as Minister of National Infrastructure, one of the many government posts he has held. At the time, Israel and Egypt, though nominally allies, were at odds over Egyptian support for Yasser Arafat and the PLO. According to a 2009 article in The Telegraph, “in 2001 he (Lieberman) was quoted as telling a group of ambassadors from the Former Soviet Union that if Egypt and Israel were ever to face off militarily again that Israel could bomb the Aswan Dam.”
Last year, at an election rally in the coastal city of Herzliya, then-Foreign Minister Lieberman threatened Arab-Israeli citizens who were “not loyal to the state.” He said: “Those with us, should receive everything in terms of rights…those against us, it cannot be helped, we must lift up an axe and behead them – otherwise we will not survive here.”
Knesset member Ahmad Tibi of the “Arab Movement for Change” party called for an investigation and referred to the pugnacious Lieberman as the “Jewish Islamic State.”
Tibi, a Palestinian physician who has called for an international boycott of Israeli institutions, has long-been a thorn-in-the-side of the Israeli right and the rightward-trending political center. Lieberman’s secular-nationalist party has long-called for Tibi’s expulsion from the Knesset.
Tibi describes himself as “Arab-Palestinian in nationality, and Israeli in citizenship” and has directly challenged both Lieberman’s rhetoric and Netanyahu’s emphasis on Israel as the “home of the Jewish people.” Tibi has called on Israelis to conduct the affairs of state as a “state of its citizens” and not as a state that has an ethnic Jewish character.
But what does it mean to say that Israel is “a Jewish state” and what are the implications of that “Jewishness” for its non-Jewish citizens ? This question has, of course, been raised many times since the 1948 establishment of Israel — but Netanyahu’s recent rhetoric, which Lieberman has taken to a new level, demands that the Palestinians accept Israel as a “Jewish State” — not, as Tibi and his Arab and his Jewish supporters would suggest, a “state of its citizens.”
In the last two decades, since the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the ascendance of right-wing rhetoric and policy, Israel has moved far beyond the possibility of being a “state of its citizens.” It should come as no surprise then that a recent poll conducted by American social scientists shows that “Israeli Arabs generally do not think Israel can be a Jewish state and a democracy at the same time.”
And it is in this unequal confrontation between the supporters of Tibi and the much more powerful supporters of Lieberman and Netanyahu that lies one of the glaring paradoxes and contradictions of Israeli society.
Within the borders of ‘official’ Israel, parliamentary democracy of a limited sort still operates. And the Arab citizens of Israel have legal rights — though they are not always honored. That democracy does not extend into the Palestinian Terroritories and the Golan. Unlike the Israeli Arabs, the Arabs of Gaza, the West Bank and the Golan are essentially stateless in both international and local terms. Under Lieberman’s influence, the army and other arms of the security state will likely be given more leeway and be subject to less civilian control than before.
Two factors highlight the essential contradiction between Israel’s claim to be democracy and the actual political situation within the country and the territories it controls: the second-class status of its Arab citizens, and its forty-nine year subjugation of the populations of the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan. These contradictions have long been masked by the illusion that the Israeli occupation is ‘temporary’ and that therefore a two state solution is possible.
In the 1970s and �?80s such a solution was rendered difficult by Israeli settlements and the Palestinian response to them, and in the mid-�?90s a possible two-state solution was rendered null and void by the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. But illusions die hard, especially for American policy makers.
Today, in 2016, the US-driven solution to the outcome of the 1967 War — the much-vaunted two-state solution — looks like nothing but a mirage.
The policies of Lieberman and his allies — some of whom are now speaking of Lieberman’s aspiration to become the country’s next prime minister — would seem to confirm this, and doubtless comes as a major disappointment to Arab citizens, Palestinians under Israeli control, and to many Israeli Jewish progressives who have had the courage to stand up for the rights of their fellow-citizens and stateless Palestinians.
Shalom Goldman is Professor of Religion at Middelbury College and a regular contributor to ISLAMiCommentary. His new book is “Jewish-Christian Difference and Modern Jewish Identity: Seven Twentieth Century Converts.” (Lexington Books, 2015)
ISLAMiCommentary is a public scholarship forum that engages scholars, journalists, policymakers, advocates and artists in their fields of expertise. It is a key component of the Transcultural Islam Project; an initiative managed out of the Duke Islamic Studies Center in partnership with the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations (UNC-Chapel Hill). This article was made possible (in part) by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author(s).
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