We Fear Lieberman Because He Embodies Israel’s Darker Side

Democracy and freedom are not just measured on a fixed scale, but also against our expectations, and Israeli democracy has been exemplary.

Avigdor Lieberman waits for the arrival of the European Union's Foreign Policy Chief in Jerusalem, August 29, 2011.
Baz Ratner, Reuters

Since the news broke of his coalition deal with Benjamin Netanyahu to appoint him Israel’s next defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman has given only one media interview. He told Vesti, the Israeli Russian-language daily, that he had won “a double achievement for the Russian-speaking community in Israel” and that his “entrance to the Defense Ministry is for me an important stage in smashing the glass ceiling that we, the community of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, have been hitting for years.”

The story of Avigdor Lieberman could have been packaged so differently. He started out as a 20-year-old student making aliyah from Kishinev (today Chisinau in Moldova), a Soviet city synonymous with pogroms and the mass murder of Jews. Through hard work and talent, he overcame the language and cultural barriers, succeeded both in political activism and business, and now finally has approached the top of the pyramid. And on Monday he will enter the Israeli establishment’s holy of holies.

Only five men before him were both defense and foreign ministers; three of them Moshe Dayan, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon were ultimate sabras. The other two, Moshe Arens and Shimon Peres, were like Lieberman born in Eastern Europe. Unlike him, they were considered insiders who had paid their dues to Israeli society long before becoming ministers.

Why hasn’t Lieberman achieved the same status? Is it some lingering antipathy toward Russians? Perhaps, but even 92-year-old Peres still has an accent and that doesn’t stop him from being Israel’s elder-statesman supreme.

Lieberman’s right-wing politics? Arens is no less of a hawk, yet he is the epitome of establishment respectability (and is even a Haaretz columnist).

Is it a generational thing? Maybe, but you have to ask yourself why American Jews recoil from Lieberman. Surely a community that in the 1970s and ‘80s campaigned for Soviet Jewry under the banner “Let My People Go” would celebrate the elevation of the most prominent Israeli politician to come from that diaspora. Isn’t Lieberman a Russian-Jewish-immigrant success story just like Google’s Sergey Brin?

David Ben-Gurion and Israel’s other founding fathers were just like Lieberman. They were born in the same part of the world back then the Russian Empire under the czars. They had remarkably similar experiences of growing up as Jews in a hostile environment and arriving as young men in a strange land, learning both a new language and the survival skills of the Middle East. Many of them never totally shook their accents and were often more comfortable in Russian or Yiddish than in Hebrew and English.

They had many achievements – they founded a state, built a modern army and economy, and absorbed into a young society over 2 million refugees – destitute Holocaust survivors and Mizrahi Jews forced to flee their homes. And they transformed a tiny beleaguered nation without any natural resources into a nuclear power within the space of two decades. But for some reason we forget to mention what is perhaps their most incredible achievement.

If Ben-Gurion had said in 1949 that with Israel fighting enemies on all its borders and from within, facing the need to build homes and find jobs for all the new immigrants, it just couldn’t afford the luxury of elections and a parliamentary democracy, he could have easily gotten away with it.

There would have been ample justification for such a move and the legal basis in the emergency laws the British Mandate had bequeathed the new state. The Declaration of Independence doesn’t contain a commitment to democracy and very few of the new Israelis, both those who had lived in Palestine previously and those arriving from Europe, Asia and Africa, had any experience of living under anything but various forms of dictatorship.

Ben-Gurion’s liabilities

Not that the early Israeli democracy was anywhere close to perfect. For all the nostalgia of a better Israel that once existed before 1967 and the rise of the right wing, Ben-Gurion’s Israel kept most of the Arab population under military rule until the mid-’60s, controlled most of the economy and media through party-affiliated trade unions, and used the Shin Bet security service to keep tabs on political opponents from both the right and left.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel, at least within the borders before the Six-Day War, is a much freer place than Ben-Gurion’s Israel by every objective standard of democratic societies. Yet the Russian-Israeli politicians of the early decades of statehood are revered as great democrats and Lieberman is seen as an authoritarian Putinist.

The reason for this double standard is that democracy and freedom are not just measured on a fixed scale, but also against our expectations. Israeli democracy was indeed a wonderful thing upon its birth. Not only was there nothing like it in the Middle East, but none of the new countries being born in those postwar years succeeded in building a stable parliamentary system that allowed all political voices to be heard and represented. And eventually, when the public mood shifted in 1977, there was a smooth transition of power from the founding Labor movement rightward to Likud.

The Israelis built one of the strongest armies in the world and at no point was there anything more than a murmur of a military coup. It was better than anyone could have expected, and it placed Israel in the premier league of democracies, where it had previously no realistic hope of being. You get points for being an imperfect democracy stuck between Egypt and Syria that you don’t deserve if you’re up in Scandinavia.

Lieberman isn’t being pilloried for his corruption – after all Sharon, Ezer Weizman, Ehud Olmert (before his conviction) and a long list of other Israeli politicians were all respected despite similar allegations. A heavy Russian accent hasn’t made Natan Sharansky less of a symbol of freedom, and Moshe Ya’alon, the man Lieberman is about to replace in the Defense Ministry, has much more hawkish views on the viability of the two-state solution. He is still being portrayed as a paragon of liberal values and responsible conduct.

The reason we instinctively feel that Lieberman is dangerous is that he embodies more than any other powerful Israeli politician the fear of a different kind of Israel. He has become the symbol of a country where democracy is no longer a necessity but a luxury.