Opinion

How Far Will Lieberman Go?

Avigdor Lieberman speaks to the media in Yad Hashmona, September 22, 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

The phrase “The face of the generation is like the face of the dog” appears in the Mishna and the Babylonian Talmud. Numerous interpretations have been proffered. One of the most popular describes how spiritual guides, public figures and policy-makers often act like dogs in the sense that while they run ahead of their masters and seemingly lead them, in fact they are constantly turning around toward their masters to divine which direction they wish them to go.

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Since the advent of the democratic idea in the late 18th century, the sovereign’s dependence on the masses has steadily grown, and radically altered relations between rulers and those they rule. Monarchs of the premodern world had much less need of their subjects’ approval for the direction of their political activity. Leaders in the democratic world, on the other hand, are dependent upon the needs and demands of the citizens who elect them, even if they never fulfill those demands.

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In the two elections held in Israel this year, a peculiar thing happened, something that was not initially obvious. Someone from the far right deliberately undermined (and continues to undermine) the traditional rightist rule that has governed Israel in recent years. All of a sudden, a racist, corrupt politician has decided he prefers a liberal, secular unity government to a religious-nationalist government of the sort he belonged to for many years.

Has Avigdor Lieberman – who served under many right-wing governments, who in the past proposed the idea of blowing up the Aswan Dam, who advocated the transfer of Arabs as a way to resolve the conflict, who likened peace activists to kapos in the Nazi concentration camps, who sought to pass a law compelling every citizen to sign a declaration of loyalty to the Jewish state or forfeit his citizenship, who for many years has not lived inside Israel proper but in a settlement with a mixed religious and secular population, who sat in several governments with all types of ultra-Orthodox ministers – has he, at the wave of a magic wand, suddenly had such a complete change of conscience?

Anyone who has followed the brilliant career of the man who immigrated from Moldova 41 years ago, served just one year in the IDF – in the military police in Hebron – got rich in dubious ways and became a supremely self-confident figure in Israeli politics, knows that Lieberman is a cynical, manipulative operator not overly concerned with ethics and public integrity. His refusal to budge this time is not for the sake of boosting his place in the governmental hierarchy. As defense minister in Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, he reached that glass ceiling. To understand the strategic shift in his behavior, a shift that is not merely tactical, we must examine the shifts that have occurred in the makeup and mindset of his electorate.

Ever since Lieberman broke off with his pal Netanyahu and founded his own party Yisrael Beitenu in 1999, his “master” was the “Russian” electorate, and his political discourse more or less reflected the evolving tastes and desires of these voters. In 2000 (after a decade and a half of “Zionist aliyah”), immigration from the countries of the former Soviet Union reached a peak of one million people. As many of these new, insecure Israelis initially voted for candidates who were “one of theirs,” Lieberman figured out which way the wind was blowing, eagerly reaped the fruit, and won 10 Knesset seats. Before this electorate, he could unabashedly display his anti-Arab racism, his Putinist scorn for liberal values, and his efforts to obtain a bigger slice of the government pie for them. That he and his parliamentary partners lined their pockets with public monies was of little concern to his grateful, and diffident public.

But this community’s self-confidence has grown exponentially since 2000. It was bolstered by its sabra sons and daughters, and its political demands started to change and become more varied. From one election to the next, Lieberman’s support started to dwindle until his political future was in question. Being one of the cleverest people in Israeli politics, Lieberman was quick to adjust his direction in accord with that of his master – i.e., the large bloc of voters who proudly followed him.

The big secret that everyone knew but didn’t want to say too much about was that more than half of the immigrants from the former Soviet Union are not considered Jewish according to Israeli law. In other words, not only do the Palestinian Israelis who comprise 20 percent of the population, by their mere presence, detract from the state’s Jewish character, so do more than a half-million Russians whose Jewishness is in question. As long as the children of the immigrants enlisted in the IDF and bolstered the high-tech industry, most Israelis quietly acquiesced to this situation. But the Chief Rabbinate worried that it was about to lose precious control of something.

In every way possible, it began making life difficult for these people, it made sure to have them registered at the Interior Ministry as non-Jews, and of course blocked the “danger” of their assimilation in every possible way. Recently the rabbinate came up with the twisted idea that there exists such a thing as Jewish mitochondrial DNA, by which one could “scientifically” prove who is a real Jew. It thus sought to tighten its grip and authority and prevent the infiltration of “anti-Semites” into the body of the Chosen People.

The response of the mass of non-Jewish voters was not long in coming. The new liberal-secular Lieberman was born and promptly took center stage in the electoral arena. Yes, all Haredi boys and girls must be drafted; yes, the minimarkets must be opened and public transportation must operate on Shabbat; yes, core curriculum studies must be mandated in the Haredi schools; and perhaps most important of all: yes, civil marriage must be permitted in Israel. What was hitherto the “baby” of the “anti-Jewish” left became the flagship issue of the new, practically “non-Jewish” Lieberman.

At the same time, he did not stop being racist and condescending toward the local Arabs. Nor did he suddenly start evincing respect for the Supreme Court like the average liberal. But he did become the leader of an all-out battle against the Haredim. How far will he dare to go? No one knows.

A new identity politics is behind the politics of the last election. Of course, we are still far from anything like a tactical alliance between Israel’s two non-Jewish populations. Like a good number of his voters, Lieberman still dreams of creating a state that is not so Jewish and that is as (Eastern) “European” and Arab-less as possible. The inherent contradictions in his moves are confusing and ensnaring the political system at present, but in the long term they could also help give rise to changes in the country’s traditional ethno-religious character. Will “the Russians” paradoxically be the ones to hasten the Israelization of the collective consciousness? Time will tell.

The writer is a professor emeritus of history.