Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he’s serious about making headway in negotiations with the Palestinians. If that’s true, sometime soon he’ll have to rid himself and his government of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beitenu party.
Many Israelis support Lieberman because he exhibits a lot of brawn and bravado. He says exactly what he thinks and won’t let Israel be pushed around. He doesn’t believe in peace with the Palestinians and refuses to take part in talks with them.
Others believe he is damaging Israel’s reputation in the world, a world that will jump at any opportunity to vilify it, and that his actions are aimed at undermining efforts to advance peace.
Recently, he’s been acting like a bull in a china shop even more than he usually does. In the midst of renewed attempts to jump-start direct talks with the Palestinians, and just days after the end of the contentious 10-month moratorium on building in West Bank settlements, Lieberman addressed the UN General Assembly, declaring that reaching comprehensive peace in the Middle East “could take decades” and that “the guiding principle for a final-status agreement must not be land-for-peace but rather, exchange of populated territory.”
Less than two weeks later, after meeting with the French and Spanish foreign ministers it was leaked to the press that Lieberman had told his guests they should solve their own problems in Europe before coming to Israel with complaints and that “Israel will not be the Czechoslovakia of 2010.”
These intentional remarks from Israel’s very undiplomatic foreign minister aren’t isolated events. By not formally rebuking him for these actions, Netanyahu gives credence to assertions that Lieberman expresses positions Netanyahu can’t support publicly, fuelling doubts about his sincerity regarding the peace process.
Lieberman’s agenda goes beyond foreign policy. During the last election campaign, his party based its platform on a slogan aimed at Israel’s Arab minority, demanding citizenship only be given to people willing to pledge allegiance to the state. Yisrael Beitenu hasn’t succeeded in passing sweeping “allegiance” legislation, but recently, through Netanyahu’s political manoeuvring, the government approved a watered-down bill drafted by the justice minister, who was appointed to the position at Lieberman’s behest. According to the amendment, those seeking naturalized citizenship will have to take an oath that their allegiance is to “a Jewish and democratic” State of Israel.
Sounds OK, right? The United States requires all new citizens to pledge allegiance. Why shouldn’t Israel? But like so many other things in this country, the issue is more complex than it appears. The new law would calculatedly apply only to non-Jewish – i.e., mostly Arab – naturalized citizens. Jews can automatically become citizens under the Law of Return. Hence the outrage from civil rights organizations, politicians and commentators, followed by the international community, asserting that the proposed amendment is racist.
The bill is also aimed at breeching the delicate equilibrium that exists between Israel’s Jewish majority and its Arab minority. It won’t transform Israeli Arabs into Zionists, and it unnecessarily heightens tensions between the communities. There are better ways to make Arabs feel they’re wanted citizens in this country.
Realizing Lieberman’s initiative had once again placed him in an uncomfortable corner, Netanyahu began back-peddling. He ordered the justice minister to amend the amendment so that Jews too would be required to take the oath of allegiance upon receiving citizenship. That in turn led to another crisis, as some in the haredi community voiced opposition to the part of the pledge that recognizes Israel as a democracy.
There’s a saying in Hebrew that, roughly translated, states “it’s not enough to be right, you also have to be smart.” It’s becoming increasingly applicable to Lieberman, and through him to Netanyahu.
If he’s earnest about his desire to make real inroads both domestically and with our neighbours, Netanyahu has to get smart. The time has come to replace Lieberman and Yisrael Beitenu with Tzipi Livni and her Kadima party. That won’t be easy either. Personal and collective egos will have to be set aside. But the responsibility of leadership demands it.