Avigdor Lieberman’s Rise Could Strain Relations With U.S.


With Avigdor Lieberman poised to play the role of coalition kingmaker after Tuesday’s Israeli electoral tangle, some Jewish groups here are readying a hasbara campaign aimed at convincing Americans that the Yisrael Beiteinu leader is not the racist and political extremist portrayed in the Israeli and international media.

But in private, several Jewish leaders said that if Lieberman does emerge from Tuesday’s inconclusive election with an important and visible role, Israel’s image will suffer yet another serious blow and the next government could be headed toward new clashes with an administration in Washington committed to restarting stalled negotiations.

Even after almost all the votes were counted, the outcome of the election remains in doubt as both Kadima leader Tzipi Livni and Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu claim victory — and as both scramble to assemble viable coalitions. The results almost guarantee a protracted period of political chaos that will effectively put the new Obama administration’s nascent peace efforts on hold.

The likeliest outcome may be a Likud-led coalition that includes Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu (“Israel is Our Home”) and other right-wing parties, said historian Michael Oren, who argued that Lieberman is “not an extremist, he’s just unconventional.”

But his potential role in the next Israeli government “doesn’t bode well for U.S.-Israel relations,” he said. “It will be very upsetting to people in Washington.”

The other possible outcome — a broad national-unity government under Livni that also includes Labor and Likud — would be so divided on critical issues involving negotiations with the Palestinians that it would be virtually paralyzed. That would also be a source of frustration, if not friction, with a new administration that has already appointed a top-level envoy to probe for peace openings.

A major role for Lieberman in a Likud-led government could “mean a greater chance for conflict with the Obama administration,” said Robert Lieber, a professor of government at Georgetown University, who stressed that he believes such an outcome is unlikely.

But other observers say a strong Lieberman role is all but assured. Atlantic blogger and veteran Mideast journalist Jeffrey Goldberg said on Wednesday it is not inconceivable Lieberman could end up as defense minister in a Likud-led government.

The potential for new strife along the Washington-Jerusalem axis may be heightened by the abject defeat of the Labor Party, which sank to fourth on the Knesset rolls, behind the upstart Yisrael Beiteinu, and by the virtual disappearance of the leftist Meretz Party.

“This election was a tremendous blow to the traditional Zionist left,” said a longtime Jewish peace activist who spoke anonymously because he is not authorized to speak for his organization. “Meretz was hoping to increase its presence; instead it was dwarfed. Labor is now the fourth largest party, which is a tremendous defeat. That changes the political dynamics in Israel a lot.”

Labor, several analysts suggested on Tuesday, is on the verge of extinction — yet it is the party most Americans, and in particular American Jews, have supported over decades.

By far, the most dramatic outcome of Tuesday’s election — predicted for weeks and borne out by Tuesday’s vote — was the rise of the predominantly Russian Yisrael Beiteinu faction as a major force in Israel politics and its leader, Avigdor Lieberman, as one of the most pivotal figures in Israeli politics.

That poses a big problem for American Jewish groups that have been working to counter worldwide condemnation of Israel’s recent Gaza operation.

Weeks before the election, Jewish groups began trying to recast Lieberman as moderate, though eccentric.

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, founder and president of The Israel Project, a group that works with reporters around the world to promote a positive image of Israel, said Lieberman’s most controversial views — including his demand that Israeli Arabs leave the country or take loyalty oaths and serve in the military — are misunderstood here.

“We know that Israel is a democracy where Christians, Muslims, Jews and all other citizens have freedom of religions, speech, press and a right to vote,” she said in an e-mail interview earlier in the week. “But many voters in Israel feel that even in an open democracy, including in America, there are limits.”

She drew a comparison to the United States in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

“If after 9/11 groups of Americans had protested in support of the 9/11 hijackers and it was found out that they had even helped those hijackers, America would have found that this was beyond a freedom of speech issue,” she said. “Additionally, new American citizens and all elected officials take an oath. Many Israelis ask if Israel should be different than America on this.”

Lieberman’s party, she said, is “diverse, and indeed, they will elect a Druse member of Knesset. One of the key platforms of Lieberman’s party is to open up civil marriages so that atheists have even more rights in Israel.”

And echoing a theme that has become popular in the Israeli press in recent days, she said, “Like President Obama, Lieberman has a dramatic personal story. An immigrant from humble beginnings, Lieberman is known for ‘outside-the-box’ thinking.”

Martin Raffel, associate director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), said Lieberman “does support a two-state vision, which is the most fundamental question involving U.S. policy. He does have a strong ideology, but he also has a practical side, which in part explains his political success.”

And no matter who ends up in the prime minister’s chair, “many of the policies he has expressed over the years won’t necessarily become policies of the next government.”

Whatever his role in the next government, Lieberman’s impact on U.S. public opinion won’t be great “because he won’t be the prime minister,” Raffel said.

But Larry Garber, CEO of the New Israel Fund, rejected the mounting effort by pro-Israel leaders to portray Lieberman as a kind of quirky centrist, although he said he isn’t surprised by the PR makeover effort.

“We went through this before, when he was appointed as minister for strategic planning. That time, also, there was an effort by Jewish leaders here to make him out to be a political figure with strong views on certain issues, but not necessarily a radical.”

That characterization is wrong, Garber said.

“He is an extremist,” he said. “He may present issues like transferring the Israeli-Arab population in a more ‘liberal’ fashion, as if it would actually facilitate a two-state solution.”

But his proposals for land swaps and population transfers that would leave far fewer Arabs citizens in Israel “would de-naturalize the people, deprive them of the right of citizenship, which is a violation of international law.”

While Lieberman’s ascendancy may not dramatically affect U.S.-Israel relations, he said it will have a “much bigger impact on the American Jewish community,” Garber continued. “This goes to our core values as a community, and poses some serious challenges to Jewish leaders who have been at the forefront of speaking out against racist expressions all over the world. So why are they not doing the same for this man?”

Lieberman’s rise may be a particularly thorny hasbara, or public relations, problem for pro-Israel groups, but it’s just one of many new dilemmas facing a new administration in Washington that insists it wants Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking to be a top priority.

Increasingly, the likeliest options for creating a new government are a right-wing coalition led by Likud’s Netanyahu, which would be dominated by factions opposed to any new land concessions to the Palestinians and possibly by Lieberman’s controversial views on Israeli Arabs, or a broad Kadima-led coalition paralyzed by deep ideological divisions over fundamental questions of war and peace and politically unable to respond to U.S. or international initiatives.

And whoever wins, the results will likely include the same political instability that has thwarted U.S. peacemakers since the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin.

“It’s an inconclusive election, but it’s clear it will be very difficult to have an enduring coalition,” said Samuel Lewis, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel. “And it will not be an easy government. That doesn’t mean the Obama administration won’t try, but it will be frustrating for them.”

“Any prime minister is going to be very constrained by his coalition partners, and this is a recurring problem in Israelis politics,” said Haim Malka, assistant director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). “Israelis have become used to going to the polls every two years to elect a new government, and in the end they see that very little really changes.” If Netanyahu does end up in the prime minister’s chair as head of a right-of-center coalition, he said, the most immediate consequence might not involve broad peace process efforts.

“While the official political talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority have made little progress, Israel continues to negotiate indirectly with Hamas over the terms of a ceasefire,” he said. “The big question is whether a Netanyahu government will accept a temporary cease-fire in Gaza as a necessary evil in the short term, or seek to ratchet up the military pressure on Hamas. That strikes me as potentially more important than how the election will affect the ‘peace process.’”