‘Ultra-nationalist….’ ? ‘Racist….’?
The views of Israeli Foreign Minister Lieberman
Published: 4 May 2009
Briefing Number 240
Summary: ‘Lieberman is an ultra-nationalist…’. ‘Lieberman is a racist….’. This Briefing looks at the views of new Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on a two-state solution, as well as two other ideas which he has advocated during his political career, and during the 2009 Israeli election:
- the redrawing of Israel’s permanent borders, and its impact upon Israeli Arabs
- the idea of a loyalty oath to the state of Israel to be taken by Israeli citizens
Avigdor Lieberman – he’s blunt and straight-talking, but is he ‘racist’?
In March 2009 Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of right-of-centre party Israel Beiteinu, became the Foreign Minister of Israel in the new coalition government of Benjamin Netanyahu. Fifteen Israeli Beiteinu politicians were elected to the Israeli Parliament – 12.5% of the total members. Lieberman is blunt. He is straight-talking. And he can be pretty direct and undiplomatic. He has upset Egypt. He’s upset Tsipi Livni. And he has bemused international audiences. To many he is simply a ‘far-right ultra-nationalist’, or a ‘racist’. The question is – what does he actually believe?
1. Lieberman’s attitude to an Israel-Palestinian two-state solution
Lieberman’s views on a two-state solution cannot be separated from those of the Government, and at the time of writing this Briefing, the Government is formulating a new foreign policy. Nevertheless, there have already been various indicators of what he actually believes on this issue:-
- On taking office as Foreign Minister on 31 March 2009, Lieberman immediately declared the Annapolis negotiating process with the Palestinians to be “invalid”. Lieberman has been widely criticised internationally for that statement. In fact, in the same breath, Lieberman freshly committed Israel to the ‘Road Map’ diplomatic process which is designed to achieve a two-state solution (for more see Beyond Images Briefing 238, 5 April 2009)
- At the beginning of May, Daniel Ayalon, who is the deputy Foreign Minister, and Lieberman’s right-hand man in Israel Beiteinu, confirmed this when he stated that the Israeli Government “accepts the ‘Road Map’ for peace which will lead to a two-state solution….” (interview in the Jerusalem Post, 3 May 2009)
- In February 2009, Lieberman told the New York Jewish Week: “I advocate the creation of a viable Palestinian state…..” (reported by the Jerusalem Post, 27 February 2009)
- In February Lieberman stated in an interview with the Washington Post online that he would be willing to vacate the West Bank settlement in which he lives – called Nokdim – for a peace agreement with the Palestinians (reported by Haaretz, 1 March 2009). He has made that statement publicly on previous occasions
- In April 2009, in an interview with the Jerusalem Post, Lieberman was asked for his views on the statement by Prime Minister Netanyahu, made during Netanyahu’s acceptance speech as Prime Minister in the Israeli Parliament, that Israel “does not want to rule over any Palestinians”. Lieberman responded: “I agree absolutely” (Jerusalem Post, 28 April 2009)
Lieberman’s diplomatic approach is certainly different from that of his predecessor. And he considers that too much diplomacy is filled with slogans, rather than addressing the real, core issues of the conflict (see his Jerusalem Post interview of 28 April 2009). Nonetheless, as the above statements indicate, Lieberman does not reject a two-state solution. He advocates a different way of achieving it. These are not the views of a diehard ultra-nationalist, but of a tough-talking pragmatist.
2. Lieberman’s proposal for redrawing the permanent borders of Israel, and the impact on Israel’s Arabs
For many years Avigdor Lieberman has proposed a radical approach to creating a permanent two-state solution. He argues that Israel and the future Palestinian entity should agree that certain areas of Israel with a high proportion of Israeli Arabs should be absorbed within a future Palestinian-Arab state, and in return Israel should be able permanently to annex several West Bank settlement blocs which are inhabited by a high number of Jewish settlers, and which constitute about 8-10% of the West Bank. Lieberman’s proposal would impact in particular on the area of northern Israel known as the ‘Triangle’ which contains the largest Israeli Arab town – Umm el-Fahm – and many other Israeli towns populated by Israeli Arabs. Four comments:
- Lieberman’s idea is widely described as a demand for the transfer or even for the expulsion of Israel’s Arabs. But this is simply not the case. Not a single Israeli Arab would be asked to leave his or her home. Nor would communities be displaced. The proposal involves a legal redrawing of the boundary, not physical movement of people
- The idea has met resistance, not only from centrist and left-of-centre Israelis, but most strikingly from Arab communities of Israel. They are offended because they say it undermines their status as Israeli citizens, and would result in them being denied the benefits of citizenship in the future, even before the final contours of a deal have been worked out. In the words of the Economist, Israel’s Arabs are “unanimously and vehemently opposed to the plan” (Economist, 7 February 2009)
- This is not a new idea. In fact, former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon floated almost the same idea in 2004. He was forced to drop it quickly, in the face of furious opposition from Israel’s Arabs (see Beyond Images Briefing 82 – ‘Living in Israel or a Palestinian state?’)
- Lieberman claims a precedent for what he is suggesting: Cyprus. He suggests that after the war in Cyprus in 1974, the ethnic conflict was resolved by having two separate political entities – the Turks in the Northern part of the island, and the Greeks in the Southern part of the island. He argues that before the war there was “bloodshed and terror”. But as a result of the new approach, there is “stability, prosperity and security”. He argues that the Greek part of Cyprus is a full member of the European Union, and points out that Europe has accepted this approach to conflict resolution (from Jerusalem Post interview, 28 April 2009)
Avigdor Lieberman’s ideas for redrawing the permanent border may or not be fulfilled. But the main reason his ideas are unviable at present is not because Lieberman is ‘anti-Arab’. The reason is because the Arabs who would potentially be affected are too ‘pro-Israel’.
3. Lieberman’s demand for Israeli citizens to take a ‘loyalty oath’ to the state
Finally, Lieberman has provoked an outcry by proposing that Israeli citizens be obliged to take a loyalty oath to the state. This has been condemned as a racist, anti-Arab proposal, which no other country would demand of its citizens. Combined with his other ideas, this idea has resulted in Lieberman being branded a ‘racist’. The idea may well be never form part of the Israeli government’s agenda. But in any case, the situation is not as ‘black-and-white’ as Lieberman’s critics depict it:-
- Some countries already require some form of loyalty oath as a condition for a person to take citizenship
- It is not only Israeli Arabs which would be required to take this oath, but also Jewish ‘ultra-orthodox’ communities in Israel who do not currently accept the legitimacy of the Israeli state. In fact, Lieberman’s proposals do not discriminate between ethnic groups at all. In the words of Hebrew University historian Alex Yakobson: “Lieberman’s loyalty law does not distinguish between races; in fact it calls for people of every race and creed to be loyal to the state. Now, I don’t agree with that, but that’s not racism….” (interview, Jerusalem Post, 12 February 2009)
- Many might find Lieberman’s views on this distasteful or offensive, but the conduct of some sections of the Israeli Arab community has undeniably helped place this issue in the public domain, and many would say that Lieberman is pursuing the issue to a logical conclusion:-
- In 2006 a group of local Arab politicians, communal leaders and academics published a controversial report called ‘Future Vision’ which proposed limited secession from Israel, and a type of self-rule for densely populated Arab areas of Israel
- Periodically some elected Israeli Arab politicians and community leaders imply support for Hamas and for Hizbollah, both of which rejects the right of Israel to exist. Lieberman’s proposals are in part a product of this conduct
- Tragically, some individual Israeli Arabs have been involved with terrorism, either committing acts themselves, or facilitating terrorist attacks by Palestinians entering Israel from the West Bank
It would be immoral and unjust to collectively condemn all Israeli Arabs for the views and activities of a minority. Nevertheless, in view of such beliefs, it can hardly come as a complete surprise that there is pressure for Israel’s Arabs to declare “where they stand” in relation to the State of Israel.
Lieberman’s position has best been summarised by Israeli social activist Benjamin Pogrund, who was a renowned anti-apartheid journalist in South Africa for many years, and who now lives in Israel:
“I grew up in a society where racism applied only to skin colour. But I think that the definition has changed. I think now, it’s about an attitude towards a certain group, and because of that, Israeli Arabs and the left are calling Lieberman a racist. Well, he’s clearly offensive to Israeli Arabs, but you need to be careful when you use the word racist…..” (Jerusalem Post, 12 February 2009)
Avigdor Lieberman has radical views. And many inside and outside Israel have been sweeping in their condemnation. But as this Briefing illustrates, his views on a two-state solution, on Israel’s Arabs, and on the loyalty test, are not nearly as black-and-white as his detractors claim.