Appetite for self-destruction: the rise of Avigdor Lieberman

Despite the fact that Tzipi Livni's centrist Kadima party gained a majority in the Israel election yesterday, it was rightwing candidate Avigdor Liberman who held the real victory, according to one of our Israel Observers, Joel Schalit. Read more...  


Despite the fact that Tzipi Livni's centrist Kadima party gained a majority in the Israel election yesterday, it was rightwing candidate Avigdor Lieberman who held the real victory, according to one of our Israel Observers, Joel Schalit.

Avigdor Lieberman's victory, or so it seems, was preordained. Nothing that the actual winner of yesterday's Israeli elections could do was going to change that, despite the fact Tzipi Livni's incumbent Kadima party received twice as many votes. Even though the second-highest polling Likud party also received more votes, there was little it could do to deny Lieberman's victory either. Indeed, for the past several weeks, Avigdor Lieberman, the head of Israel Beiteinu, the country's fastest-growing party, was increasingly seen to be the next kingmaker in Israeli politics - if not Israel's next prime minister.

Eclipsing the Labour party to take the number three spot in the Knesset (Israel's parliament), the prospects for greater power and influence for the wild-eyed, former nightclub bouncer from Moldova are absolutely undeniable. Running on a simple platform that emphasised almost exclusively anti-Arab themes while using the concept of ‘loyalty to the state' as his campaign's primary branding, Lieberman succeeded in making an avowedly-racist Jewish political party the ideological winner of an Israeli national election.

Though such an event will seem eminently logical to Israel's critics, it signifies the extent to which the country's political environment has come full circle over the course of the past two decades. Indeed, in 1994, Israel's parliament went so far as to ban Israel Beiteinu's predecessor, the racist Kach party, following the murder of 29 Palestinians by one of its members, Baruch Goldstein, in Hebron that same year. The fact that a political party espousing a similar program would now be vying for the country's leadership, let alone was allowed to do so, is proof of this transformation. Even worse, no single political party can form a government without it.

For advocates of peace between Israel and the Palestinians, Lieberman's electoral success leaves zero room for optimism. Not just between Israel and Palestine, but also between the Jewish state and it's Arab citizenry, who make up 20 percent of the country's population. Insisting that those Arabs who do not declare fidelity to the state be deprived of their civil rights, offering to ‘trade' Arab communities inside Israel for settlements in the West Bank, Lieberman has simultaneously promoted civil conflict between Israelis, and reassured residents of the occupied territories that they will be allowed to stay put.

In order to understand why such a worldview would catch such fire in today's Israel, it is important to understand the factors underlying Israel Beiteinu's popularity, as well as that of it's larger sibling, the Likud. First and foremost, the success of the Israeli right is indicative of the fact that Israeli conservatives are simply better organized than their liberal counterparts. They project clearer, more defined political messages, they are better at identifying Israeli social grievances, and are more adept at cooperating with one another across party lines due to a combination of political discipline and ideological affinity.

Secondly, even though half the country is in favor of peace with the Palestinians, and could provide center-left parties with nearly enough votes to govern, there is no leadership in the larger center-left parties to make this happen. Thus, for example, though Kadima could forge a coalition with the smaller Labour and Meretz parties, it would also have to partner with the Sephardi ultra Orthodox party Shas, and the country's three Arab-led parties, Balad, Ra'am-Taal and Hadash to make such a coalition actually work. For a variety of sadly predictable reasons, Livni will not cooperate with any of these additional parties, her own inability to collaborate with religious and non-Jewish ethnic parties being the largest of her problems.

Finally, Israel's present leadership lacks any serious understanding of how dramatically it has misruled the country since it was first elected to power in April 2006. Plagued by every manner of potential social crisis - a shrinking public sector, a deteriorating educational system,  even the highest rate of child poverty in the world, though Israel's economy remained relatively stable under Ehud Olmert's leadership - the rest of the country continued to fall apart. That's why though Israel may produce amongst the best technology and film in the world right now, it also increasingly resembles a third world country. Factor in two major wars during this time, in Lebanon and Gaza, and voila. 

It is the chaos of situations like these that fosters the rise of stereotypically fascist politicians like Avigdor Lieberman, and his equally toxic ideology. They are natural consequences of their time and place. That Lieberman would triumph precisely at a time when Israel's best friend, the United States, is moving in exactly the opposite political direction, and the European Union is the most involved it has been in regional politics in nearly four decades, underlines the extent of this tragedy. Every opportunity to move forward right now is there. Yet, the Israeli right, eager to make short term political gains for its own narcissistic, selfish reasons, chooses to drive in reverse. If only it didn't have so many unwitting accomplices."