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Lieberman loyalty proposal finds support in U.S.

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Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the far-right Yisrael Beitenu party, visits the Western Wall in Jerusalem on Feb. 9, 2009, the day before parliamentary elections. (Brian Hendler)

Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the far-right Yisrael Beitenu party, visits the Western Wall in Jerusalem on Feb. 9, 2009, the day before parliamentary elections. (Brian Hendler)

NEW YORK (JTA) – As Yisrael Beiteinu vaulted into third place in Israel’s elections, capturing 15 Knesset seats, several American Jewish organizational leaders defended the party’s controversial leader, Avigdor Lieberman.

Some liberal Israeli and Jewish groups have condemned Lieberman as a fascist — the left-wing Meretz Party even compared him to the late far-right Austrian politician Joerg Haider — for his proposal to require Israeli citizens to sign an oath of allegiance to the Jewish state in a bid to curtail Israeli Arab political power.

But the Anti-Defamation League, an organization that is quick to spot instances of discrimination, says Lieberman is right to be concerned about apparent acts of disloyalty by Israeli Arabs.

Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, noted with concern the trips by Arab Israeli Knesset members to enemy states and expressions of solidarity with Hamas by Israeli Arabs during Israel’s recent military operation in the Gaza Strip.

“There were a lot of people who said, ‘Hey, that’s disloyal,’ ” Foxman told JTA. “That’s what he’s talking about. He’s not saying expel them. He’s not saying punish them.”

Lieberman, 50, has proposed requiring a loyalty oath as a condition of Israeli citizenship. Those who refuse — Arab or Jewish — would have their citizenship revoked, though they’d be permitted to remain in the country as permanent residents.

“Arabs have all their rights in Israel, but they have no right to Eretz Yisrael,” Lieberman said last week at the Herzliya Conference, an annual summit on Israeli state and security.

Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, said he found Lieberman’s proposal “legitimate.”

Foxman promised to speak out if Lieberman advanced any legislative proposals not in keeping with the spirit of Israeli democracy, noting that the ADL had criticized his proposals in the past.

In 2006, the ADL issued a statement saying it was “disturbed” by Lieberman’s call for the execution of Arab legislators who met with Hamas leaders.

Marc Stern, the acting co-executive director of the American Jewish Congress, noted that American Jews historically have been skeptical of or against loyalty oaths. He also pointed out that Lieberman’s proposal would require all citizens to take loyalty oaths, not merely oaths by those seeking to become citizens.

Stern called Lieberman’s proposal “not a serious solution to a very serious problem.”

Ori Nir, a spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, said that expressions of solidarity by Israeli Arabs with the enemies of Israel should be considered protected political speech, and that asking Israeli Arabs to sign a loyalty oath only would alienate them further.

“Once you put them on the spot, by the mere act of doing that you’re going to alienate them in such a way that you will create security challenges to the state,” Nir said. “You will put them on a spot where they will have to make some sort of a decision. That may lead some of them to a situation where they would say, ‘You know what, the heck with you.’ ”

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