Israeli accused of anti-Arab racism could become kingmaker

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 8, 2009 

HAIFA, Israel — Avigdor Lieberman has been denounced by Israeli leftists as "the most dangerous politician in Israel." Israeli-Arab lawmakers call him a racist for proposing new laws to strip Israeli citizenship from anyone who refuses to take a loyalty oath. One prominent rabbi suggested that a vote for him was a vote for Satan.

But such attacks have done little to dent Lieberman, a former nightclub bouncer who at 50 may be about to become one of the country's most influential politicians.

Fueled by a late surge in voter support, Lieberman's Israel Is Our Home political party seems poised to take more votes in the country's election Tuesday than the once dominant Labor Party — a development that could undermine President Barack Obama's nascent Middle East diplomatic push before it even has a chance to gain traction.

More importantly, Lieberman's party — Yisrael Beiteinu in Hebrew — is siphoning voters from former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his hawkish Likud Party, which once appeared solidly on-track to lead a new coalition government.

That could end up throwing the election toward Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Israel's ruling Kadima Party — though any coalition government could well require Lieberman's participation.

"I find this growing support alarming," said Avi Bareli, an historian at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev's research center on Israel and Zionism. "It reflects badly about relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel, and it reflects a difficult problem in our ability to select good leaders, especially compared to the difficulties we are facing."

The final polls before election day showed Lieberman winning as many as 20 seats in the 120-member Israeli Knesset. Netanyahu's once-commanding lead had dwindled to about 25 seats, while Livni was hovering at around 23. Labor, led by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, could end up with as few as 13 seats.

The next prime minister could decide to isolate Lieberman by building a broad unity government that excludes Yisrael Beiteinu. Or he/she could be forced to turn to Lieberman to find the 61 votes that will be needed to set up a new government.

Like Netanyahu, Lieberman supports a tough stand in talks with the Palestinians and toppling Hamas rulers in the Gaza Strip. And both leaders favor a confrontational approach to blocking Iran's cloaked nuclear program.

Both stands could put Israel's new government at odds with Obama, who is looking to launch new diplomatic initiatives in the Middle East after eight years of divisive Bush administration policies.

Lieberman may be the most polarizing figure on the campaign trail, where his appearances frequently draw protesters as well as supporters. Dozens of protesters chanted "No to fascism" outside a theater here on Sunday night as Lieberman delivered a confident speech to a low-key crowd of older voters.

Lieberman defended his citizenship proposal as the best road to national unity. "Arabs have every right in the land of Israel, but they don't have right to the land of Israel," he said.

Lieberman, who moved to Israel in 1978 from the Moldavia region of the former Soviet Union, was once viewed as a fringe politician whose extremist views would prevent him from cultivating broad-based support.

But broad disillusionment with most of Israel's main political leaders has given him a boost, especially among those Israelis who think their military should have gone farther in destabilizing Hamas during the recent 22-day military offensive in the Gaza Strip.

Before founding Yisrael Beiteinu in 1999, Lieberman spent one year as head of Netanyahu's office when the Likud leader first served as prime minister in 1996.

Over the past decade, Lieberman made headlines with a series of combative proposals.

One of the most divisive was a 2004 plan for Israel to forcibly transfer Arab parts of Israel to the Palestinian Authority as a way to ensure that Israel remained a predominantly Jewish nation.

Lieberman, who lives on a Jewish settlement in the West Bank near Bethlehem, is less likely than Netanyahu to agree to significant land concessions in peace talks with the Palestinians.

In the divisive aftermath of Israel's 2006 war with Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon, Lieberman suggested that Arab-Israeli lawmakers who met with Israel's enemies should be executed as collaborators.

A cornerstone of Lieberman's current campaign is a proposal that all Israelis sign a loyalty pledge to support Israel as a Jewish state and serve in the military or some other form of national service. Those who refused — both Jews and Arabs — would be stripped of their citizenship.

The proposal is anathema not only to the 1.4 million Arabs living in Israel, but also to many secular Jews, academics and leftists who view Lieberman's rise with increasing concern.

Israel's leftist Meretz Party has run political ads comparing Lieberman to the world's most notorious dictators. "If you liked Mussolini, if you were missing Stalin, you'll love Lieberman," the ad states.

Lieberman also has made enemies on the right, particularly in the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, which sees its ability to be a power broker in the next government undermined by Lieberman's advance. The current polls predict Shas will win 10 seats Tuesday, a drop from its current 12.

That prospect is doubly distasteful because Lieberman's secular platform has two planks that strike at the heart of the control Israel's Orthodox Jews assert over daily life here: loosening limits on the sale of pork and allowing civil marriages. Currently, only marriages performed by rabbis are recognized.

"To vote for a party like that, whose platform is to open shops that sell pork, to allow civil marriages, to destroy the Torah... that is utterly forbidden," Rabbi Ovadia Yosef , Shas' spiritual leader, told supporters over the weekend, according to Israel's Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper. "Anyone who does so will be committing an unbearable misdeed. That is to give strength to Satan."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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