Controversial Minister Gets Pass From Jewish Leaders


On the eve of his first U.S. visit since becoming deputy prime minister of Israel, Avigdor Lieberman, who calls for stripping Israeli Arabs of their citizenship, has received a provisional pass from much of the Jewish establishment — and a stamp of approval from one leader who denounced him just last May.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, told The Jewish Week this week, “I don’t see anything extremist since he became part of the government.”

Last May, before Lieberman’s ascension, the ADL called his suggestion that Arab members of Knesset who met with Hamas leaders be executed “horrendous and provocative.” In a press release, the group slammed his “dangerously inflammatory rhetoric.” Lieberman’s language, said the ADL then, had “no place in Israel, particularly [from] a public leader speaking on the floor of the Knesset.”

But Foxman — and several other Jewish leaders—sought to draw a line between Lieberman’s conduct since Prime Minister Ehud Olmert named him to his cabinet last month and everything that came before.

“In the past he has said outrageous things,” Foxman acknowledged. "One should be critical when that happens. But since coming into the government, there’s nothing he’s said that deserves the criticisms that The New York Times and the Washington Post and the European press have made.”

Foxman—a staunch critic of human rights abusers around the world—dismissed two comments by Lieberman since becoming deputy prime minister: his suggestion that a divided Cyprus, where Turks and Greeks were separated via massacres and forced removals in 1974, could provide a model for Israel and the Palestinians; and his claim that Israel can’t remain a Jewish state if it includes ethnic minorities.

“Cyprus made the best of a worst situation,” Foxman said. “There has been very little bloodshed [since partition]. And the challenge of dealing with minorities is a problem that is faced throughout the world. Just because you say minorities are a problem doesn’t mean you’re a racist. We have problems dealing with minorities in this country.”

Several Jewish leaders say they will ask Lieberman tough questions when he appears before the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations on Dec. 12. But several also argued that not too much should be made of his views since Olmert and other cabinet members have made clear they will not be implemented.

Lieberman’s statements are “a matter of concern,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “I’m sure people at the meeting will raise these issues with him.”

But Hoenlein stressed: “It depends what the government does. I’m not seeing them implement anything. I don’t think the government would accept those proposals.”

Martin Raffel, a senior official with the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, said that Jewish leaders had denounced Lieberman’s proposals in the past, “and we denounce them now.” But he added, “There not a feeling we have to proactively make a case against [Lieberman] since there’s virtually no chance his views will become policy.”

Even Ami Nachshon of the Abraham Fund, an advocacy group for Israeli Arabs, said, “What’s key is how the government acts and behaves,” though he added: “Public discussion of disenfranchisement of some of Israel’s citizens has a chilling effect on their sense of shared citizenship.”

In some respects, the minimizing of Lieberman’s statements as mere rhetoric contrasted with stands some of the same groups have taken in other contexts. After the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin by an extremist Israeli Jew in 1993, Foxman stressed the significance of extremist rhetoric in the months before the murder.

“Those who have employed this rhetoric and those who have been silent in the face of it bear responsibility for creating the environment that is the backdrop for Rabin’s murder,” Foxman charged then. “Contrary to the childhood adage ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never harm me,’ words do kill.”

But this week, even some doves were relatively restrained in their criticism of Lieberman.

“Part of the problem with Lieberman is that he’s not an out-and-out fanatic,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. “He’s a somewhat complex guy who sometimes comes across as a hard-nosed, pragmatic politician, other times as utterly outrageous. You’re never entirely clear who you’re dealing with.”

Rabbi Yoffie said there is a widespread perception that Lieberman was brought into the government “for the stability and votes it would bring,” and that his policy impact will be “minimal.”

Still, Rabbi Yoffie was one of a few major Jewish leaders willing to lash out at some of Lieberman’s recent statements, including his suggestion in October, as deputy prime minister, that Israel needed to deal with Palestinian militants in Gaza “like Russia operates in Chechnya.” Pillage rape and murder by Russian soldiers have been common there, according to journalists and human rights monitors. Rabbi Yoffie denounced Lieberman’s call as “deeply offensive to us from a moral point.”

The complexity with Lieberman that Rabbi Yoffie referred to— and that prompted his restraint — may be part of the issue also holding back other Jewish leaders. On several occasions, Lieberman has seemed to call for the mass removal of all Israeli Arab citizens from Israel (see sidebar). But more commonly, he has called for their removal by simply redrawing Israel’s borders so as to turn portions of Israel with high concentrations of Arabs over to a Palestinian entity, while Israel would keep heavily populated Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank.

Many American Jewish leaders say that is not the same as the “transfer” proposals suggested by Israeli far right-wingers.

“What he has put forward is the idea of a population exchange,” said the ADL’s Foxman. “Under international law, it is acceptable to transfer people with their land; what you cannot do is take them off their land. There’s nothing fascist about this; it can resolve some situations.” But Dinah Pokepner, counsel for Human Rights Watch, said that Lieberman’s proposals are, in fact, illegal under international law. While redrawing national borders through negotiation is common, “Lieberman’s proposal is based on ethnic and racial discrimination,” she said. “It’s an effort to divest people of citizenship because of their ethnicity. That is illegal.” She also noted that Lieberman did not clearly accept the creation of a Palestinian state to whom the Israeli Arabs’ citizenship could be transferred. This would effectively render them stateless. Jewish leaders like URJ’s Rabbi Yoffie also see Lieberman’s proposal as problematic.

“He’s talking about 20 percent of the population of Israel,” Rabbi Yoffie said. The Israeli government should be concerned about the opposite— strengthening their ties to the state, not sending a message that we intend to get rid of you.”

Rabbi Yoffie said he plans to raise the question of the exchange plan at the upcoming Presidents Conference meeting.The rabbi, like most major Jewish leaders, said the Presidents Conference was an appropriate forum for an exchange of views with Lieberman, but warned that the meeting should not convey the message that American Jews support his views.

“We will not be doing him any favors if he leaves with the impression that these kinds of views are somehow acceptable to the American Jewish community,” he said. “That will be one of my jobs.”

Groups on the left said the mainstream Jewish leadership is still fostering such an impression—and that the results will undercut Israel’s position in the world.

Diane Balser, vice president of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, a pro-peace process group, said the Jewish community’s credibility is at stake.

“It’s not a good idea to have a double standard in terms of standing up against racism and extremism,” she said. “We have to have the same standards for Israel—and for members of its government.”

Mark Rosenblum, a founder of Americans for Peace Now, said that Lieberman’s inclusion in Olmert’s cabinet “sucks the air out of criticism” of his extreme statements and views. “It would behoove leaders of our community not to lose their tongues or their morals on this.”

A Jewish community that continues to demand harsh criticism of Arab and Islamic extremists, he said, “loses credibility” when it refrains from criticizing Lieberman just because he is now a part of the government.

And he said Lieberman’s presence in the government reduces the likelihood the Palestinians will comply with international demands meant to facilitate a new peace process.

“The devastating part of the Lieberman appointment is that it reinforces the most extremist tendencies in the Arab and Islamic worlds,” he said. “What Lieberman does is convince them that there’s no point in compromising with Israel, since its goals are just military.”

Rosenblum pointed to one unanswered question about Lieberman’s role in the Olmert government: whether he will be able to veto new peace moves.

This week Olmert, in a major policy address at the grave of David Ben-Gurion in Sde Boker, struck a conciliatory note, suggesting a new willingness to withdraw from much of the West Bank and release Palestinian prisoners. In return, the Palestinians would have to release captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and accept the conditions laid down by the international Mideast Quartet.

But Lieberman promised to “prevent rash and hasty steps,” according to Israeli press accounts. “We paid a heavy price for failing to stop Oslo, which was one adventure too many.”

Rosenblum said that “if we are heading down the path of a cease-fire with increased diplomacy, and if that holds, I’m not so sure Lieberman will have a veto.”

Larry Cohler-Esses is editor at large; James D. Besser is Washington correspondent.