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Seeing Netanyahu through a Canadian lens

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Avigdor Liberman, left, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his swearing-in ceremony on May 30 HAIM ZACH/GPO PHOTO
Avigdor Liberman, left, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his swearing-in ceremony on May 30 HAIM ZACH/GPO PHOTO

As the Israeli prime minister welcomes Avigdor Liberman into an expanded coalition government, local pundits and experts weigh in


Following last month’s surprising news that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had expanded his government through a coalition with Yisrael Beitenu and appointed its leader, Avigdor Liberman, to serve as defence minister, Canadian Jews are contemplating the impact of a government that may be the most right-wing in Israel’s short history.

The Moldovan-born Liberman, founder of the secular-nationalist party that caters mostly to immigrants from the former Soviet Union, has served Israel in a number of roles, including as foreign affairs minister and deputy prime minister. But few could have predicted Netanyahu’s decision to replace former defence minister Moshe Ya’alon with one of his fiercest political foes.

The newly expanded coalition gives Netanyahu’s government 66 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, up from a razor-thin 61.

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McGill University political science professor Harold Waller said he thinks the decision to invite Yisrael Beitenu into the government is “largely motivated by the prime minister’s desire to have more than the barest majority for his government. This is classic coalition politics in Israel. These kinds of moves happen all the time.”

He said the coalition was surprising given the well-documented rivalry between Netanyahu and Liberman.

“The obvious choice was to make a deal with Labor, which didn’t work out, because I think regardless of whether [Opposition Leader Isaac] Herzog was willing to do it, most of his party in the Knesset were not willing to go along with it, and they would undermine him from behind,” said Waller, who recently co-authored the book Politics in Israel: Governing a Complex Society.

“Losing Ya’alon as defence minister was definitely a bad development, and the government replacing him with Liberman only exacerbates the problem, but these kinds of shenanigans are always going on in Israeli politics.”

Despite Netanyahu’s assurances that he is “committed to peace with the Palestinians,” Herzog criticized the prime minister’s choice to “steer his government with Liberman and Bennett in an extreme and dangerous direction,” Herzog said, referring to Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett, who supported the coalition on the condition that a military adviser would be appointed to keep cabinet members informed about security and defence affairs.

Waller said the coalition might move the government more to the right, but to paint Liberman as a right-winger is a “little bit too simplistic.”

He noted that in 2004, Liberman proposed a “populated-area exchange plan” that would transfer Israeli Arab towns and villages near the Green Line –an area known as the Triangle – to the Palestinian Authority, and only those Arab Israelis who migrated back to Israel and pledged loyalty to Israel could remain Israeli citizens.

In the years since, Liberman, who had consistently opposed a two-state solution, has gone on record to say his views have evolved and he now supports the idea. And, in 2014, he resurrected his 2004 idea, saying he would not support any peace plan that did not include such a territorial exchange.

“There was a lot of opposition to the idea of giving up any Israeli territory in a peace negotiation, but that was seen by some as a move away from a strictly right-wing position,” Waller said.

Daniel Schild, a member of JSpaceCanada, a left-leaning Zionist organization, wrote a blog post about Liberman’s appointment, calling it a “blow to the stalled peace process.”

“In my view, this move smacks of political expediency and speaks to Netanyahu’s highest objective – his own political survival – rather than to a desire to strengthen or unify the country,” Schild wrote.

“The Liberman appointment sends out a negative message to Israel’s citizens and allies. We cannot support the policies of Israel’s current government, which places political expediency ahead of the urgent need for restarting peace talks as Israel enters the 50th year of its occupation of the West Bank.”

Canadian Zionist Federation (CZF) president Les Rothschild said the new coalition “definitely signals a move more to the right… I don’t think it has a real benefit both for the internal problems that Israel has and the external problems that Israel faces. It’s certainly not a good move towards a peaceful solution anyway. If I’m a supporter of a two-state solution, it is further away now, rather than closer.”

But Jerusalem-born University of Calgary professor of political communication Michael Keren said the coalition may be Israel’s best chance for peace with the Arab world.

“Composed mostly of extremist right-wing parties, it has a better chance than any other coalition to persuade Israel’s confused and fearful electorate to accept the necessary concessions that any peace agreement requires,” said Keren, who is currently involved in a project highlighting major cultural and political trends in modern Israel.

“Whether it would be willing to get into serious peace negotiations, as advocated today by the high echelons of the Israeli military, by large parts of the civil service and by numerous civil society associations depends however on the continued striving of these three forces. I am, therefore, less worried about political leaders in the coalition who make extremist statements, such as Defence Minister Liberman’s insane [1998] call to bomb [Egypt’s] Aswan Dam than about Prime Minister Netanyahu, who is devoting great efforts to the weakening of these forces in Israeli society.”

B’nai Brith Canada CEO Michael Mostyn is optimistic the coalition will give the government the security it needs to move toward a peace agreement.

“Prior to this latest deal, Prime Minister Netanyahu was saddled with an extremely narrow coalition and made efforts to expand his government through negotiations with both the Zionist Union and Yisrael Beitenu,” Mostyn said.

“With his right flank now secure, Netanyahu has just announced his willingness to discuss the [2002] Arab Peace Initiative as the catalyst for a final-status peace accord,” he added, referring to the Saudi-led Arab League proposal to normalize relations with Israel if it withdraws to the pre-1967 borders.

In the hours following the Israeli cabinet’s approval of Liberman as defence minister, Netanyahu told reporters in Israel that he’s “willing to negotiate with the Arab states’ revisions to that initiative so that it reflects the dramatic changes in the region since 2002, but maintains the agreed goal of two states for two peoples.”

Waller suggested the coalition might put further strain on Israel’s relationship with the international community and Jews in the Diaspora.

“Let’s face it: ever since Likud first gained power in 1977, liberal North American Jews have been upset when Israel is governed by a Likud-led government. This component of North American Jewry doesn’t like Likud, doesn’t like Bibi [Netanyahu] anyway, and so this probably angers them more and increases their level of dissatisfaction, disillusionment, or distances them further from the government of the day,” he said.

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“The voters, for reasons I well understand, prefer a right-of-centre government to the alternative. Should North American Jews be telling Israeli Jews that we know better than they do what’s good for them? It seems to me to be rather condescending.”

Posting her opinion on The CJN’s Facebook page, Christiane Burton-Cohen, a doctoral student in medical biophysics at the University of Western Ontario, said, “Between ISIS, restored funding to UNRWA by Canada’s PM and a general shift in politics in Israel’s key allies, I think appointing a person like Liberman as defence minister is the best decision Israel can make right now… I used to not take sides in the Israel-Palestine conflict, but I fear one day that Israel will no longer be there if nobody speaks up for the Israelis. Yes, Liberman is the best choice.”

The CZF’s Rothschild said he doesn’t think the new coalition will alienate Israel’s liberal supporters.

“People who support Israel, no matter where they are on the political spectrum, still support Israel. This may be more concerning for the liberals than the conservatives, but if anything, it mobilizes the progressive base a little bit to look at this and say, ‘There is still work to do.’”