Danger: The Lieberman factor

Fareed Zakaria writes in Newsweek that the biggest danger facing Israel — more than Iran or its proxies — is that it will mishandle its relationship with its Arab population:

But while most commentators focus on the future of the peace process and the two-state solution, a deeper and more existential question is growing within the heart of Israel.

It’s a question posed by the election’s biggest winner: Avigdor Lieberman. His Yisrael Beytenu party won 15 seats, placing third but gaining enormous swing power in the Israeli system. Whether or not the new government includes him, Lieberman and his issues have moved to center stage. …

For Israel, handling the relationship with its Arab minority is more crucial even than dealing with Hizbullah or Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Israel needs to decide how it will deal with the Arabs in its midst. As extreme as it may sound, Lieberman’s call to disown them seems to have resonated with many of his fellow Israelis. Benjamin Netanyahu has warned that Israel’s Arabs constitute a demographic time bomb. He calls it unacceptable. Benny Morris, the once dovish historian who chronicled the forced expulsion of most Palestinians from the Jewish state in 1948, has turned to arguing that Israel needs to protect itself from the Arabs now living within its borders. "They are a potential fifth column," he warned five years ago in an interview with Haaretz. "In both demographic and security terms they are liable to undermine the state … If the threat to Israel is existential, expulsion will be justified." It’s a dangerous spiral: the worse the distrust gets, the less loyalty Israel’s Arabs feel toward their country — and vice versa. Last week’s election has brought the issue into the open. Its resolution will define the future of Israel as a country, as a Jewish state, and as a democracy.

Over at The Washington Post, Richard Cohen offers a similar take, citing the prediction of Israel’s first president, Ezer Weizmann, that "the world will judge the Jewish state by what it will do with the Arabs":

The Arabs of Lieberman’s antipathy are not Israel’s traditional enemies — either in Gaza, the West Bank or elsewhere in the Middle East. He focuses instead on the Arabs of Israel proper, about 20 percent of the population. They are his fellow citizens, some of them of dubious loyalty, it is true, and most of them with genuine grievances, it is also true. In essence, Lieberman wants to swap them for Jewish settlers now living provocatively in the occupied West Bank. It’s half a good idea.
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But it is the other half — the one that would rid Israel of its Arabs — that has propelled Lieberman to the front rank of Israeli politicians. …

The issue of Israel’s Arabs is complicated. They are not Jews, yet they are expected to be loyal to a Jewish state. They are Arabs, yet they are expected to stand by while their fellow Arabs are pounded — as in Gaza — by Israeli guns.

Yet, in an odd way, Israel’s Arabs ought to represent the best of Israel. They can vote. They hold seats in parliament. They have more civil rights in Israel than they would in any Arab nation. They ought to be a point of pride. Their civil liberties, their standard of living, their political participation ought to show the world what sort of country Israel is. That’s what Weizmann wanted.

Weizmann was no dreamer. His century — the 20th — was fast becoming the bloodiest in history. The world was just completing an orgy of genocide, ethnic cleansing and population transfers — Greeks for Turks and Turks for Greeks, Germans for Poles and Poles for Germans, a decades-long brawl culminating in the Holocaust and followed by the expulsion of millions of ethnic Germans from all over Eastern Europe. Pakistan and India were created in a similar manner — a population swap of many millions of people. This was the way things were once done.

Israel, too, engaged some in ethnic cleansing — or why else all those Palestinian refugees? But the attempt was both chaotic and, as we can see, not wholly successful. More important, the concept was anathema to important members of the Zionist establishment such as Weizmann. The way of the world — eliminating ethnic minorities — would not be practiced by the very ethnic minority that had suffered the most.

It is clear that the world has grown weary of Israel. Its problems seem intractable, insoluble. Its solicitous critics suggest it imbibe the hemlock of proportionality — a missile for a missile, a rocket for a rocket. To do otherwise amounts to "state terrorism," in the felicitous phrase of Bill Moyers. It turns out winning isn’t everything; losing gracefully is.

Cohen ends by rapping U.S. Jewish leaders for not doing more to speak out:

Lieberman’s rhetoric has excited some concern in the American Jewish community, but, as usual, most of the leaders are mum. They ought to open their Weizmann, Page 461 to be precise, and see what Israel’s founding fathers had in mind. Israel can swap land for peace, but not Arab for Jew. That would leave an empty space — not only where the Arabs once were, but where Israel once kept its values.

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