The unthinkable happens rather frequently in Israeli politics. Ariel Sharon weathered banishment from politics to return as prime minister. Many Israelis thought it wouldn’t be possible considering the humiliation of Sharon’s fall from power after Sabra and Chatilla. But he managed a triumphal return. No one thought it possible that a sitting prime minister could be as venal as corrupt as Ehud Olmert has turned out to be nor that he would be brought down by putting his hand in the cookie jar once too often.
Now, we are about to enter another one of those Alice in Wonderland moments in the annals of Israeli politics. Bibi Netanyahu is vetting his planned governing coalition and among the eye-popping appointments will be Avigdor Lieberman as foreign minister. I have to admit being stunned by this and I pride myself as someone who isn’t easily stunned by anything the Israeli political scene can dream up.
I predicted this wouldn’t happen since Akiva Eldar reported the Obama administration might not even allow Lieberman into the U.S. as a former member of an outlawed terrorist organization, Kahane Chai. How, I wondered, would Bibi have the temerity of bucking such a warning from Washington? Well, Bibi’s either got balls or he’s a fool. He’s going to put forward a genuine Israeli racist thug as the country’s next foreign minister. It certainly puts Yvet, as Lieberman is known in Israel, in a league with Jorg Haider, Kurt Waldheim, Jean Marie LePen and others who’ve climbed the ranks of power in their respective countries.
One wonders what message it will send to the world community that Israel’s chief messenger is previously convicted of physical assault and under investigation for moneylaundering. Unfortunately, Israel has had experience with sitting ministers convicted of crimes during their tenure. Haim Ramon served his sentence for fondling a subordinate and was welcomed back into Olmert’s embrace with open arms.
When one considers that the incoming justice minister, Daniel Friedmann, owes the renewal of his tenure to Lieberman, one wonders how any investigation of Lieberman can be considered full, rigorous and independent. We will have to watch that one like a hawk to ensure Friedmann doesn’t intervene in the process to his patron’s benefit.
This certainly complicates the Obama administration’s dealings with Lieberman and the incoming Israeli government. The president has made a priority of rebuilding our relations with the Muslim world. Yet, Israel has chosen a politician who openly espouses disenfranchising and even expelling Israeli Arabs from Israel. How do we square our values and relations with the Arab world when we have to deal with such an Arab-hater playing such a senior role in the new government?
There is a silver lining in all this: the more extreme Netanyahu’s government the more quickly it is likely to fall. Either the Israeli people will tire of an extremist government doing nothing to advance the peace process; or one or another of the wacko factions he’s embraced will give him the old heave ho when he’s insufficiently true to rightist principles. If Netanyahu embarrasses himself and his Party enough, then the Israeli people may turn to a more centrist alternative for their next government that might conceivably advance the prospects for peace.
While she is by no means an ideal politician, Tzipi Livni has navigated both the election and the post-election coalition dickering with dignity and principle. That she didn’t sell out her principles for a mess of Bibi porridge as Shimon Peres did time after time when he led Labor, is to her credit.