Text size

The dust has yet to settle on Israel's version of Bush/Gore 2000, a nightmare indecisive election in which the entire country is the state of Florida. Avigdor Lieberman has emerged as many of us feared - or hoped - as the unquestionable power-broker of the Knesset, even with his Yisrael Beitenu party bringing in a less than hoped for 15 seats.

In a Slate.com column earlier this week entitled "Avigdor Lieberman's epic chutzpah," Vanity Fair writer and Beirut street fighter Christopher Hitchens spoke on the frightening reality of Lieberman's new-found role as Israeli kingmaker, by diving into scattershot references to the complexities of modern Israeli life and in particular, the eternal fence sitting that is the lot of Israeli Arabs.

Early on, Hitchens mentions Lieberman's time as a nightclub bouncer in Moldova (a fact that has become a preamble to any mention of the Yisrael Beitenu leader since the elections neared), before delving into the complexities of Israeli-Arab existence. But what Hitchens didn't do was examine some of the more truly frightening implications Lieberman's rise has for the state of Israeli politics.

Forget for a moment his Jim Crow style loyalty tests and ludicrous calls to bomb the Aswan Dam and, one can assume, hydroelectric facilities throughout the Muslim world. A sober assessment of his campaign makes it clear that Lieberman's "no loyalty, no citizenship" election slogan is a non-starter, a stroke of race-baiting electioneering with no real hope of being implemented as policy. After all, can you imagine any Israeli outside of the Jewish community of Hebron volunteering to serve as a pollster administering the loyalty tests door-to-door deep in Israel's Arab communities?

What is in many ways more frightening than Lieberman's abject racism is the way that young Israelis, both left-wing secular and right-wing religious have latched on to his strongman image, convinced that "Israel needs a Putin, there's no order here," with little thought to the implications.

Most of these people can hardly be painted as "fascists" or "racists", and don't fit the wild-eyed settler or jack-booted Russian nationalist image bestowed upon supporters of Yisrael Beitenu by their detractors.

Most of them are our friends and neighbors who are fed up with a political system that awards graft, failure and lethargy, and a criminal justice system where there is little if any reliable law enforcement, and the inmates run the entire country as their personal asylum. Ironically, Lieberman is also under investigation for alleged graft, but it only seems to have made him more popular.

Furthermore, these secular and wholly rational colleagues and family members are fed up with risking their lives serving in an army protecting a religious community that does not share their burden and lives off their dime, all the while making no effort to hide their hatred of the secular majority that shelters them and puts food on their table.

That may be the true irony of Yisrael Beitenu, and it's an aspect of the party that is missed entirely in Hitchens' article. That is, that a party painted as fascist and racist may be the only one well positioned to protect secular values and release the stranglehold exerted by the religious on the definition and image of Judaism in Israel.

Furthermore, with all due respect to the nice Jews of Meretz and Labor, Yisrael Beitenu may be the only party that stands a chance of ending the nationalist wing's devotion to messianic, Greater Israel ideology and the retention of every inch of territory from the river to the sea. For better or for worse, Lieberman sees Arabs through geopolitical crosshairs, not the prism of biblical promises and cherry-picked rabbinical commentary.

Racism is a dead horse whose continued beating in Israel serves little purpose. What is truly worrying, is the way so many in this country have been so willing to embrace a would-be domestic tyrant (see the spot-on skit from the Israeli satire show "Wonderful Country," in which a Darth Vader-esque Lieberman seizes power on election night) after so many years of failed promises, disgraceful leadership, and a maddening lack of civility in daily life.

The fact that they have felt driven to elect a corrupt, perennially-indicted Putin of their own, whose platform is based on racial politics he has no way of enforcing, shows the true depth of Israeli political discontent.

That, Mr. Hitchens, is the real outrage here.

More by Benjamin Hartman:

  • Lieber-fear and Bibi-phobia: How fear of the far-right could make Livni PM
  • Benjamin Hussein Netanyahu, or, How a little bit of Obama goes a long way
  • Israel's Knesset: I wish I knew how to quit you
  • Ben Hartman on the U.S. elections