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U.S. Jewish leaders, including doves, duck on Lieberman

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Israeli President Shimon Peres, left, welcomes Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman prior to a meeting in Jerusalem on Feb. 19, 2009. (Mark Neyman / GPO / BPH Images)

Israeli President Shimon Peres, left, welcomes Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman prior to a meeting in Jerusalem on Feb. 19, 2009. (Mark Neyman / GPO / BPH Images)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Are Avigdor Lieberman’s views dangerous to Israeli democracy or have they been blown out of proportion?

American Jewish leaders are split on the question, but broadly agree on another point: It should be up to Israelis to decide whether Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiitenu party should be part of a governing coalition.

U.S. Jewish leaders interviewed by JTA were virtually unanimous this week in declining to weigh in on the coalition maneuvering in Israel, including the question of whether the controversial Yisrael Beitenu leader — who has called for all citizens to take a loyalty oath and supports swapping parts of Israel populated by Arabs to a future Palestinian state in exchange for West Bank settlement blocs — should be included in a new government.

Even officials at several dovish groups — including J Street, Americans Peace Now and Brit Tzedek v’Shalom — passed on the question, despite their willingness to criticize Lieberman’s campaign platform and express hope that his beliefs were not represented in any final coalition agreement. Ultimately, they said, Israelis should pick their government.

The refusal to address the makeup of the coalition came as prominent commentators focused in on the issue. Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria and The Washington Post’s Richard Cohen warned that bringing Lieberman into the government could comprise Israeli values and its image in the world.

In a Post column Tuesday, Cohen quoted Chaim Weizmann’s memoir that Israel would be judged by how it treated its Arab citizens and criticized the recent “ugly turn of Israel politics.” The columnist also questioned why U.S. Jewish leaders were not doing more to speak out.

In an interview with JTA, Cohen said the inclusion of Lieberman in an Israeli government would be “very, very counterproductive” to the Jewish state and that Jewish leaders should be speaking out strongly on the matter.

“I could defend the operation in Gaza,” Cohen said, but “I’d have a very hard time” defending a government including someone who has demanded citizens take a loyalty oath.

But some prominent U.S. Jewish leaders said that Lieberman’s positions were being exaggerated, and that even if he were included in a coalition, the government still wouldn’t support all elements of his campaign platform.

“I don’t believe he can impose his agenda,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

That said, Hoenlein added, Lieberman is “far more moderate than the media has presented it.”

For example, Hoenlein noted that many across the political spectrum have proposed land swaps as part of any two-state solution, albeit smaller than those Lieberman has advocated, and that Lieberman’s positions on religious issues like civil marriage are firmly in the liberal camp.

“I find a lot of apocrypha but very little in actual detail” about the alleged danger of Lieberman, said the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, Abraham Foxman. He said Lieberman’s proposed loyalty oaths would be required of everyone, not just Arabs, and thus were not discriminatory singling anyone out.

Those who already don’t like Israel will simply use Lieberman “as another excuse,” Foxman said, but he didn’t see much other fallout internationally.

One U.S. Jewish leader who did express a desire for Lieberman to be kept out of the next coalition or at the very least “exiled” to its margins is the president of the Union of Reform Judaism. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, in an op-ed last week in the Forward newspaper, criticized the “apologists and excuse-makers” for Lieberman in the American Jewish community.

In an interview Monday from Israel, Yoffie said he now believed it was very likely that Lieberman would be a part of whatever government is formed. Thus, he hoped that the Yisrael Beiteinu leader at least would not have a prominent role in which he would be seen by the world as a major spokesman for the Jewish state. For instance, Lieberman taking the foreign minister job would be “problematic,” Yoffie said.

Both Larry Garber, executive director of the New Israel Fund, and Brian Lurie, co-chair of the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues, expressed concerns about Lieberman, but predicted that his relative electoral success could end up having a positive impact by focusing more attention on issues related to Israel’s Arab minority.

“What Lieberman and his party have done is they have made this issue of the Israeli Arab into a central issue for the Jewish state — not a peripheral one or a secondary one, but a central issue,” Laurie said. “Now that can cut both ways.”

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