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.

Avigdor Lieberman (R).
Avigdor Lieberman

In the 2003 Israeli election, a party with the promising name Shinui (the Hebrew word for change) surged in the polls and ended up with 15 seats—out of 120—in the Knesset, Israel's parliament. It was a huge success for a party with no real grass-roots organization, especially one with a simplistic message and no clear position on the most important issues of the day—war and peace, security and settlements, Palestine and Iran. Shinui rode a wave of anti-religious sentiment among the Israeli middle class. A vote for Shinui was a vote of protest against the ruling powers' tendency to pay a heavy political price for votes from ultra-Orthodox parties. It didn't last very long. In the next election, Shinui practically disappeared. Israeli voters—impatient, restless, disillusioned—had moved on to the next trendy cause.

It's a familiar phenomenon in the messy world of Israeli politics. The chaotic nature of the parliamentary system, compounded by complications related to Israel's state of affairs, multiplied by Israel's leadership crisis of recent years, all have contributed to the rise of these one-hit-wonder parties.

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In the run-up to the Feb. 10 election, the party that everybody's talking about is Israel Beitenu (Israel Is Our Home), headed by Russian-born strongman Avigdor Lieberman. The party mostly emphasizes a secular nationalist vision and demands that all citizens must demonstrate their loyalty to the principle of a "Jewish and democratic state" before they can enjoy the benefits of citizenship. Israel Beitenu's TV commercials boast that "only Lieberman speaks Arabic"—that is, he is the only candidate who understands how to deal with the problem of disloyalty he attributes to many members of the Israeli Arab minority.

But there's an even more significant group—albeit a quieter one—and that's the party of the undecided. According to polls, Israel Beitenu is predicted to get 16-19 mandates, that is, around 15 percent of the vote. The undecideds have made a more impressive showing. On Wednesday, professor Camil Fuchs of Tel Aviv University, one of Israel's leading pollsters, told me that less than a week before election day, 20 percent of Israelis haven't yet decided who they are going to vote for. About one-quarter of them can be pushed into indicating a preference, but the rest will not budge: They just don't know. For a country like Israel—with its high voter turnout and tradition of strong political views—this is an unusually high rate of undecideds.

So, there are two apparently different groups: those who know exactly what they want—a strong leader ready to pick a fight with the world and especially with those he considers to be Israel's "enemy within," namely Israeli Arabs; a man of bluntness and toughness. And then there are those whom don't know what they want: Do they want a woman known for originality, honesty, and freedom from corruption (Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni of Kadima) or a man known for being a great speaker—a bright, if contrarian, thinker with an irresistible habit of making himself the enemy of all elites (Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu)? Fuchs told me that the largest group of undecideds is the segment of people who do not yet know if they'll vote for right-of-center Likud or centrist Kadima.

In fact, however, these seemingly different groups are really one and the same: They are all disillusioned voters. Just days before election day, Israelis have already made one decision: They don't like the candidates. That's why so many would vote for "something else" (Lieberman); that's why so many don't yet know who to vote for; that's why those who do know split their votes not between two main parties, as normal countries do, but among four or even five major parties. Likud, Kadima, Labor, Israel Beitenu, and possibly Shas, the Sephardic religious party, will be in the range of 15-25 Knesset seats. (The polls currently show Shas with 10 or 11 mandates, but the party traditionally performs better in elections than in polls.)

Of course, on election night the focus will not be on the undecided; all eyes will be on Lieberman. He is successful for many of the same reasons the other candidates aren't. Yes, his message of "no loyalty, no citizenship" has troubling undertones of racism, alienation, and the despair of people who no longer believe that Jews and Muslims can live together peacefully on the same piece of land. But it's also possible to find some encouraging signs in Lieberman's apparent popularity.

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.

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.

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