Lieberman, Ethnicity and Israeli Politics: An Open Letter to Yossi Sarid

In an op-ed about Avigdor Lieberman you have tacked one of the most sensitive questions in Israeli society.

Dear Yossi Sarid,

In an opinion piece about Avigdor Lieberman you have tacked one of the most sensitive questions in Israeli society and Israeli politics: ethnic tensions and their impact on our lives and politics. There is not just the tension between Jews and Arabs, but there are the tensions between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim, and the question of the impact of the third largest group in Israel: immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

In your piece, you chose to tackle the latter question, but you don't speak the words - and that is dishonest. You don't say something along the lines of "Lieberman is Russian, and hence he has totalitarian leanings." Instead you write, "He came from a large country and saw a country that was too small."

These sectarian tensions are the unspoken secret of Israeli politics. Political correctness demands that we do not speak too much about the leadership struggle in Kadima as involving a blond Ashkenazi woman and a dark-haired former General originating from Iran. And we are certainly not to speak too much about the fact that Lieberman, one of the dominant figures of Israeli politics, is of Russian (more precisely Moldavian) origin.

Your piece connects this to another source of great tension in Israel. In no time after its inception Israel evolved a caste system: there is the aristocracy which built this country, and there are second-class citizens who came later, who received this country ready-made, and now think that they have the right to "meddle" in its politics.

The op-ed's punch line is: "We came to this country to work, the early settlers thought; but Lieberman has come here to preserve the state's honor - and precisely at a time when the proud Arab nation is less inclined to wallow in respectful ceremonies, and is bequeathing these customs to the Jews."

Yossi, what you write can easily be taken to mean that the wing of Israeli policy that is enamored with power is of recent origin and connected to recent immigrants; that the Sabras who are the offspring of the early settlers were all decent, hardworking and diplomatic, and that new immigrants who came later are responsible for the sorry spectacle of Israeli politics.

But let's go back a bit and examine the history. Remember Rehavam Ze'evi, aka Gandhi? Born in Jerusalem (a real Sabra!), he brought us the party of Moledet. Its platform, as you certainly remember, was to transfer all Palestinians from the West Bank to neighboring Arab countries. It brought us Raful, who spoke of Palestinians as "drugged cockroaches." The list of Israeli-born and Israeli bred politicians who were enamored with power and with speaking the honor language of the Middle East is long, and it didn't start with Lieberman.

Israel's intoxication with Jewish power, the belief that chutzpah is better than ingratiating ourselves to the gentiles was part of Israeli culture before Mr. Lieberman was even born, let alone arrived in Israel. Thus he is, unfortunately, connecting to a well-entrenched tradition in Israeli political culture; he didn't invent it.

The problem is not with Mr. Lieberman who, in a democracy, is entitled to have his views, appalling and totalitarian as they are. It is with a political system that allows somebody completely unsuited for the job to be foreign minister - or, for that matter, allowed Amir Peretz to be minister of defense. The latter choice was partially responsible for the debacle of the Lebanon war of 2006.

Alas, we are paying a steep price for Lieberman's presence at the helm of the Foreign Ministry. Its professionals are desperate, because their boss, who is strenuously avoided by most Western diplomats or ministers, is making anything remotely resembling a reasonable foreign policy impossible. His rather outlandish theories about Israel's desirable foreign policy, show subtlety of understanding of international politics about analogous to a proverbial bull's ability to run a china shop.

The problem is that Israel's mainstream politicians have not had the courage and political will to change a system in which ministries have become means to appease and buy off potential coalition partners. They have not stopped the dreadful tendency to make Israeli politics look more like haggling in a souk than a parliamentary democracy. Lest I be misunderstood, I do not connect this to politicians who are Mizrahi Jews.

Neither Sharon, nor Olmert or Bibi (all Ashkenazi Sabras) had the guts to say "enough with a system that wastes money, that has obscene numbers of ministers, many of whom have no competence whatsoever in the topic of their ministries!"

My sympathies for Lieberman are zero. Like many others, I think that this skillful tactician is a danger for Israeli democracy. But we can't blame him for a political system that sucks. Lieberman didn't invent the system, he just makes skilful use of it.

I am all in favor of trying to tackle the explosive subtext of ethnicity in Israeli politics. But if you want to do so, it needs to be done without insinuations and innuendos, but openly and clearly.