There’s no doubt that the new right-wing Israeli government under Binyamin Netanyahu with Avigdor Lieberman as foreign minister is seen as a bit of a headache by many concerned parties in the international community, including among the friends of Israel in the US and Europe.
The radical composition of the government poses a challenge to everyone, especially since radical and extreme elements in both Israeli and Palestinian societies have been nourishing each other over the past several years. The extreme policies of Ariel Sharon, including abandoning the peace process, contributed to the emergence of Hamas and its victory in the last parliamentary elections. Similarly, Hamas’ victory aided in the election of this new Israeli government.
One of the reasons the new government poses a challenge to others is the prominent position of Lieberman and the political views that helped him attain such prominence, whether on the peace process or with respect to Israel’s Palestinian minority.
Lieberman has come up with two very controversial proposals in this regard. The first is to adjust the borders of Israel to exclude areas of particularly high Palestinian population density and place them under Palestinian Authority or state control. The other is a loyalty law that ultimately seeks to restrict political freedoms for those questioning certain Israeli constants and that is directed at the Palestinian minority in Israel.
These two positions and the motivation behind them have elicited strong reactions not only from the Palestinian minority in Israel and progressive Israeli forces and groups, but also from among the friends and supporters of Israel in the West. These worry that such extreme positions will harm the image of Israel worldwide and create a situation in which support for Israel becomes not just a political issue, but an ethical one.
Lieberman’s outspoken presence has also focused attention on the Palestinian minority in Israel, which has always suffered various kinds of discriminatory and racist laws. Most importantly, the community saw the state confiscate swathes of land to make way for new Jewish immigrants after 1948. Until 1966, furthermore, the state imposed military rule on the Palestinian community, restricting its movement and undermining its social and civil rights. The Palestinian minority has always been discriminated against in terms of education and health services and forms the poorest and least educated sector of Israeli society.
In order to solve the tensions between the Palestinian minority and Jewish majority in Israel there needs to be a departure from the mentality that Lieberman represents, i.e., that the country has to be pure Jewish, or Jewish first and foremost. But Lieberman has only given prominent voice to decades-old policies and practices that essentially seek to undermine the minority and ensure the Jewish majority.
These policies derive from the same underlying motivation that saw Zionist forces drive out Palestinians in 1948 in order to make room for a Jewish state rather than a secular and democratic one. Lieberman represents an unrestrained and unapologetic modern strand of that kind of thinking and that is why his prominence is so dangerous.
Certainly, it is the kind of attitude that will continue to cause problems for Israel in the region as well as with its Palestinian neighbors. It may now cause problems for Israel more widely.
Israel has never been held accountable for its illegal and unacceptable behavior toward the Palestinians under occupation as well as its Palestinian minority. That has encouraged the most extreme elements in Israel. They, in turn, may now bring the issue into the light in a way that does not favor Israel or its interests in the region.