What the rise of Avigdor Lieberman says about Israel.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Feb. 6 2009 7:14 AM

Israel Has Already Decided

It doesn't like any of the candidates.

(Continued from Page 1)

Israeli voters' political choices are very complicated, and Israel's strategic challenges can seem overwhelming. Lieberman's message is straightforward and unapologetic. On Monday, I watched him speak at a conference. He sarcastically mocked the British for criticizing Israel—they traveled thousands of miles to fight for the goats in the Falkland Islands and have the chutzpah to question our battles! Lieberman's clear message and combative tone are an appealing contrast to the murky propositions of the three contenders for the prime ministership—Netanyahu, Livni, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak of the Labor Party. Lieberman has the appeal of the candidate willing to cut the Gordian knot.

Still, while Lieberman's rise is testimony to Israel's leadership shortage, it is also the best possible proof that the traditional Israeli right wing has been dismantled. Those people and parties who still believe in "greater Israel" and in "safeguarding the settlements" and in opposing the future Palestinian state are almost gone. There's still the National Union—which mostly represents settlers, classic right-wing voters, and religious Zionists—and some members of Likud and Shas still believe in the old slogans. But generally speaking, Lieberman is killing them politically. They are the past; he is the future.

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That's because Lieberman realized that sentiments have changed. Israelis are still hawkish, skeptical, and suspicious of "the Arabs." But they are also realistic. They know that Israel will not be able to keep up the occupation forever; in fact, they long ago gave up on most of the settlements, and they couldn't care less if and when Palestinians have their own state, just as long as it is peaceful and minds its own business. Understanding all this, Lieberman founded the right-wing party for the post-occupation debate.

His message isn't about keeping the land—because most Israelis understand that game is over. Lieberman focuses on keeping a Jewish majority and a cohesive society after the land is gone. He wants Arabs (and radical ultra-Orthodox Jews) to demonstrate their loyalty or lose their citizenship. He wants Arab towns to be part of the Palestinian territory, and he hopes to exchange their territory for land with no people or for land mostly occupied by Jews.

The rise of this far-right, annoyingly in-your-face politician can be seen as a disastrously racist—some have even uttered the word fascist—turn in Israel's political life. But as ironic as it might seem, it's also possible to see Lieberman's message as a sign of maturity in Israeli politics: The right's causes have been updated. They no longer include holding onto occupied land.

Shmuel Rosner blogs daily at the Jerusalem Post.