I’ve hesitated from commenting on this development since it horrified me so and I had hoped that somehow it wouldn’t happen; or at least wouldn’t happen now. But Ehud Olmert appears intent on neutralizing Labor’s contribution to his coalition by installing arch-rightist Avigdor Lieberman as a deputy prime minister and adding the seats of his party, Yisrael Beitenu, to the governing majority. For anyone somewhat unfamiliar with Israeli politics it would be as if Pat Buchanan started his own political party, won 35 seats in Congress, was offered the vice-presidency by George Bush, and appointed to supervise the U.S. nuclear confrontation with Iran (this will be Lieberman’s key portfolio). Yes, it’s that potentially catastrophic.
A number of Labor MKs are up in arms over the proposal (which appears all but a done deal at this point) because Lieberman’s political platform calls for a form of forced transfer of Israeli Arab population (citizens of the State of Israel) to the Occupied Territories. What astounds me is that there are Labor cabinet ministers so enamored of their ministerial portfolios that they refuse to understand the import of Lieberman’s entry into government:
Several Labour ministers voiced their support for including Lieberman’s party — a move that will give Olmert’s coalition a comfortable 78-MP majority in the Knesset [ed., IF Labor stays in government].
Infrastructure Minister Benjamin ben Eliezer has sent party members a letter in which he called for the party “to maintain the coalition’s stability and not torpedo the move”.
Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog said: “I feel very bad about Lieberman’s entry but at the same time the political reality requires national responsibility.
“Right now, leaving the government over Lieberman’s joining could lead to new elections and destabilise the country and bring the extreme-right to power,” he told AFP.
Thankfully, there are other ministers who favor leaving government if Lieberman joins:
Culture Minister Ophir Pines-Paz blasted the agreement and called for Labour to resign from cabinet if it goes through.
“The actual appointment of Lieberman as minister for strategic affairs could constitute a strategic threat to Israel,” he said Monday.
“Labour party must not give a hand to this move. I will do everything in order for Labour not to be a member of such a coalition,” he told AFP. “I will try to convince MPs to oppose the move in parliament.”
“There is no common ground for sitting with Lieberman in a coalition. Not in the political-diplomatic, the economic or the governance and democracy fields,” he said.
“I hope the prime minister has taken into account the new coalition will not have the 61 MP majority in parliament” needed for a government to function [IF Labor leaves government].
Labour MP and former chief of Israel’s Mossad spy agency Danny Yatom also expressed “strong opposition to Lieberman’s entry, which will legitimise his extreme views calling for the transfer of Israel’s Arabs.”
“This is a shallow joke to allow Lieberman to become minister for strategic affairs,” he told AFP.
Other prominent Labour members, including minister Eitan Cabel and MP Colette Avital, expressed their opposition to the move.
And here’s another headache Amir Peretz has to face if he sides with the power-hungry ministers reluctant to give up their perks of power:
Israeli Arab members of the Labor Party have threatened to leave the faction if it approves bringing Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu into the coalition during the cabinet vote on Wednesday…
The Labor chairman has met…with…prominent Arab members of the party in an effort to gauge the sector’s overall sentiments with regard to Lieberman’s expected entry into the government. Most of the Arab members have agreed that if the party’s central committee agrees to sit in government with Lieberman, it would mark the end of the Arab sector’s participation in the faction.
“If someone rejects the root of our existence and thinks we have no place in Israel, we won’t be able to fulfill his plan. It’s not a matter of love or hate. He wants a Jewish state without Arabs, after all,” said MK Raleb Mahjadala, Labor’s secretary for the Arab sector.
MK Nadia Hilu said Lieberman’s entry into government has awakened a storm within the Arab membership of the Labor Party. “We will work against his inclusion. If Labor remains in the coalition, we’ll lose our essence – the image of the party, its ideology and its platform. The party is fading and dissolving,” she added.
It would be a very sad day for Labor to lose Israeli Arab participation which has continued historically since the nation’s very first national election. It would mark yet further ethnic polarization within Israeli society and a further diminution of what little impact Israeli Arabs have over their own lives. It will further strengthen Hadash, the Israeli version of the Communist party where presumably the Arab Labor MPs will end up. In turn, this may make the Israeli Arab parties the third biggest faction in the Knesset. But it would not give them any added say there as far as I can see since they would continue to be isolated from real levers of legislative power.
There is no doubt that Peretz and Labor face a withering choice. Leave government and possibly permanently seal the intraparty split plus alienate voters who are so weary of military failure and political infighting that they might further punish Labor in the next election. Or stay in government, thus abandoning their political and moral principles and further tarnishing their already deeply blemished reputation in light of the Lebanon debacle and Peretz’s sordid role in it.
I believe that Labor really only has one choice and if it doesn’t make the choice now it will be forced to make it sooner rather than later. It must leave the coalition. The longer it takes to do this the deeper the price Labor will pay electorally.
Akiva Eldar and Ari Shavit have good, hard-hitting Haaretz columns on the price Olmert and the rest of Israel will pay in advancing Lieberman’s will to power.
Gideon Levy in Haaretz (apologies if you’ve already seen this) suggests we should welcome Lieberman’s entry into the government because what he is advocating is already happening in Israel. Levy:
“Lieberman says what many people think. His racism and extreme nationalism are already out of the closet, while among many others, those qualities are still concealed deep within, even though they operate according to their spirit. They have no moral advantage over Lieberman. An openly racist and extreme nationalist is preferable to a closet racist and extreme nationalist.”
It’s an interesting read –
I enjoy your blog. (Got a big laugh seeing the frame from Blazing Saddles, one of my all time favorite movies.)
Richard Silverstein says
Ellen: I almost universally love Gideon Levy’s work. But I’m not so sure I fully agree w. him here. Of course, he is precisely right in his take on Lieberman & how he reflects what the majority of Israelis feel but don’t wish to acknowledge in their views of Arabs. But I’m not so sure I agree that it’s a good or desirable thing to have Lieberman in government.
Normally, it would be a good thing if there was a viable progressive political alternative. They could possibly make political hay out of the radicalizataion of Olmert’s government. But there isn’t. So I’m afraid that what could happen is that Lieberman’s entry into the coalition could stabilize Olmert’s shaky government & allow it to continue for quite a long time. This would further legitimize Lieberman as a viable political figure. It would be as if Bush brought in David Duke or Pat Buchanan & made him VP. Without a viable Democratic alternative, how can the opposition make any hay out of this horrible development??
Thanks for the praise of my blog.
I took Levy’s article as sarcasm, albeit bitter sarcasm.
Richard Silverstein says
Yes, sort of like gallows humor. But I think he’d say that he was pretty serious in most of his points.