A foreign affair

Once given an international forum, Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman made the most of it.

There have been some strange events at podiums in the United Nations: Khrushchev banging his shoe, Yasser Arafat appearing with a gun on his waist, Muammar Gaddafi brandishing the UN charter and throwing it contemptuously aside.

The latest in line is an Israeli foreign minister outlining the policy of his domestic political party, one completely at odds with the government he represents.

Avigdor Lieberman is an oddity as foreign minister. His political views are regarded as hard-line even by Israeli standards. Not only does he chose to live on a settlement in the occupied West Bank, but he is also the most vocal advocate of the settler cause. His appointment certainly determined more by domestic political considerations rather than any diplomatic skills.

Conscious perhaps of Lieberman’s abrasive style and beliefs, the Netanyahu administration has limited his international role. He has played no direct role whatsoever in Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, not even a meeting with the US envoy George Mitchell.

But once given an international forum, Lieberman made the most of it.  He presented to the world the manifesto of Yisrael Beiteinu, a political party largely composed of immigrants from the former Soviet bloc that now holds the balance of power in the Israeli Knesset. It was a manifesto that most Israelis grew to know in last year’s elections – but presented in an international forum for the first time. In addition, Lieberman spoke in English rather than Hebrew (or the party’s predominant language, Russian). So for limited linguists like myself it was an opportunity to hear a policy in which nothing was lost in translation.

Essentially Lieberman dismissed the “land for peace” policy that has been the basis of negotiations for decades.  In its place he suggests “an exchange of populated territory”. He continues: “I am not speaking about moving populations, but rather about moving borders to better reflect demographic realities”. What this would appear to mean, in theory, is that Israeli areas with large Arab populations would become part of a Palestinian state – and the major settlement blocs in the West Bank would formally be incorporated into Israel.

In the past extreme right movements in Israel have championed the concept of “population transfer” – one in which all Palestinians, or indeed all non-Jews, are evicted completely from the West Bank. The foreign minister expressly distanced his proposal from that one – “We are not talking about population transfer,” he says – “but about defining borders so as best to reflect the demographic reality”.

In order to decipher exactly what this means it is valuable to recall another section of his party’s election manifesto – that all Israel’s citizens must swear an oath of loyalty to the Jewish state or be deported. This was not mentioned in the UN speech, but read in tandem with the outlined policy it provides absolute clarity about what Lieberman is saying.

In essence he is advocating a state that is not only Jewish in nature, but also Jewish in composition.

It is a concept that invites truly odious comparisons to past attempts at social engineering – like the creation of a “pure Aryan nation”, or a “whites only” republic – or the most recent term used, “ethnic cleansing”.

Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu has issued a statement limited to saying that he had not seen the speech in advance. There is no condemnation of or disagreement with a policy that is clearly at odds with the public position of the Netanyahu government. Government spokesmen are saying that there is no prohibition against ministers stating their personal views in either domestic or international forums. This ignores the fact that the speech was made in the United Nations – a forum in which traditionally the views of nations are expressed, rather than those of individuals.

The Israeli media has been largely critical of the speech: The general judgement that it reveals a split in opinion on fundamental government policy. In addition the prime minister is labelled as being weak for taking no action against a Minister who says what he wants.

But this is missing the point: whether intentionally or not, Avigdor Lieberman has thrown down a major challenge to his prime minister. Binyamin Netanyahu’s silence is not enough. If he does not take the strongest action against his foreign minister it will be interpreted that he does not disagree with what he says.

And to reiterate the essence of what Lieberman is saying: Arabs and other non-Jews living in Israel may not be stripped off their land, but they will be stripped off their citizenship.

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