Lieberman Has a Date With the Mainstream

The path traveled by Begin and Sharon awaits the once-and-future foreign minister.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

With some audiences all you have to do is utter the two words "Avigdor Lieberman" and a wave of revulsion sweeps through the room. I felt it on Wednesday evening at an event in London that brought together nearly 200 British Jews who could broadly be defined as pro-Israel and left-of-center. When I rather facetiously suggested we extend our congratulations to Mr. Lieberman on his acquittal that morning, there was a chorus of protest from the otherwise polite audience lest anyone think for even a second that they could harbor any sympathy whatsoever for him.

Many people don't like Avigdor Lieberman and fear he is a threat to Israel and the Middle East; too often it seems they are afraid of his image more than anything else. Israelis, depending on their political and social persuasions, are concerned his presence in government effectively blocks any chance of achieving peace with the Palestinians and that multiple allegations of fraud and money-laundering (of which he has either been acquitted or never indicted) are corrupting the political system. Many ultra-Orthodox Jews are worried that he is empowering hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish "Russians" who have filled the country with pork stores and will soon ruin the institution of Jewish marriage and defile Jewish lineage and heritage, while the left certainly don't see him as a civil libertarian, more a xenophobic rabble-rouser.

In the Diaspora, Jews on the left and right are horrified that Israel can have allowed such an uncouth, rough character to serve as its foreign minister and No. 1 diplomat. How could their beloved second homeland cause them such shame? Last May at a JNF-sponsored forum I saw an audience of London Jews watch astounded as Lieberman spoke and seemed both civilized and articulate in English, not the oafish ogre they had imagined.

Actually, Lieberman regularly surprises those who meet him for the first time in person. Seasoned Israeli diplomats, after their initial meetings following his appointment as foreign minister in 2009, came away hugely impressed by his erudition and powers of analysis, and more than one cynical journalist has needed a brief period of reorientation after a mesmerizing one-on-one interview. He has regularly utilized his fearsome image to his electoral benefit with specific constituencies, unconcerned with the dread with which he fills other parts of the electorate, who wouldn't have voted for him anyway.

On Wednesday morning however, Lieberman emerged from the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court mild-mannered and soft-spoken, without a word of criticism for his dumbfounded opponents. I wonder how the many Lieberphobes are going to take to a revamped image of the man.

‘Can you imagine 
him as PM?’

People in Israel and the Diaspora are asking now, "Can you imagine Lieberman as prime minister?" in very much the same mixture of dread and disbelief with which they asked the same question of Ariel Sharon 20 years ago, or Menachem Begin 40 years ago. It will be much easier than you might think for Lieberman to win over wide sections of both Israeli and world Jewish opinion.

Israel's legal system has exonerated Lieberman and its society will not convict him either. The founding Mapai party that evolved into Labor ruled Israel for 30 years despite its endemic culture of cronyism and nepotism. Sharon won two landslide elections while being mired in corruption every bit as bad at that ascribed to Lieberman. Sharon's reincarnation by wily publicists as the nation's "responsible adult" won over a majority of Israelis, while the Gaza disengagement rehabilitated him on the international stage. His aura was sufficient for another corrupt politician, Ehud Olmert, to assume his mantle and win another election. We can live with Lieberman's, and even learn to like him if he delivers elsewhere.

And he can deliver where many least expect it. He may be seen today as a pillar of the far-right, but unlike other stalwarts of that camp, he has repeatedly gone on record to say he would be willing to give up even his home in the settlement of Nokdim as part of a peace agreement. In a rare move for an Israeli politician, he has set out his policy in written detail. Lieberman's plan in broad strokes is not that different from the basic framework of the classic two-state solution, splitting the Land of Israel or historic Palestine, call it what you prefer, into Jewish and Arab states, keeping the main West Bank settlement blocs within Israel in return for territorial swaps. It's the Clinton plan with one crucial difference: Lieberman envisages relinquishing to the Palestinian state parts of pre-1967 Israel heavily populated by "disloyal" Arab Israelis.

To some, the very idea of forcing hundreds of thousands of Israelis to relinquish their citizenship simply because they are Arabs, even though they get to remain in their homes that become part of a different state, is downright racist. But I can see a new-image Lieberman on a charm offensive, (and if it suits him, he can be the most urbane charmer), winning over the Israeli center and wide swathes of its left-wing with a manifesto that includes territorial division on an ethnic rather than geographical basis, and screwing over the Haredi community. It will make many liberal Diaspora Jews also see him in a totally different light.

Thin democratic veneer

The Israeli left and most liberal Jews around the world had no problem with Yitzhak Rabin championing the Oslo Accords and saying they would allow the Palestinian Authority to deal with Hamas "without the Supreme Court and without [human rights group] B'Tselem." They had little sympathy with 8,000 settlers being uprooted from their homes in the Gaza Strip, and a million and a half Palestinians left to rot there under Hamas rule. For the three decades between the implementation of the Camp David treaty and the Tahrir Square revolution, the left adored dictators Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak as they kept the peace with Israel but did nothing to encourage tens of millions of Egyptian citizens to believe in and benefit from peaceful coexistence. In case it's unclear, I prefer Camp David, Oslo and disengagement to the previous status quo, but the sad fact is that they had little to do with democracy or human rights on either side of the border.

Since Israel, despite all its challenges, has succeeded in preserving a Jewish democracy (democratic mainly for Jews, slightly less so for its Arab citizens) and the overwhelming majority of Jews outside Israel today live in the democratic West, we tend to forget just how thin that democratic veneer can become. There are few if any examples of "instant" stable democracies around the globe, and many instances of failed, flawed and fallen ones. Lieberman's thuggish demeanor is superficial, while his alleged corruption and changing policies are little worse than those of many other politicians, and have actually served until now to limit his political appeal. Our real concern must be for his potential to overcome those limitations, to charm us into realizing he is actually reasonable and responsible, and his proclivity to appeal to the desire within society and within each one of us to believe in the myth of the strong leader, a man who can deliver security, peace and prosperity as long as we are prepared to give up part of our freedom.

Lieberman at Western Wall.Credit: Oren Nahshon

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