Israel's Elections and US Policy

Israel is holding its national elections tomorrow. Not only is it virtually certain that the right-wing militarist Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud Party will become the new Prime Minister, but it is highly likely
that the ultra-right, anti-Arab nationalist and West Bank settler
Avigdor Lieberman of the racist Yisrael Beitenu (Israel Our Home) Party
will perform scandalously well. Polls show Lieberman's party winning
between 15 to 20 of the 120 seats in the Knesset, perhaps even
surpassing Israel's Labour Party for third place and even an outside
change for second place. Lieberman's party will form a vital component
of Netanyahu's ruling coalition and will secure a key Cabinet post for
Lieberman himself.

So extreme and repugnant is Lieberman that even Marty Peretz's New Republic
this week called his party "an extremist right-wing party" and said
that Lieberman "has focused much of his campaign inciting public anger
against Israel's Arab minority." In that article
-- headlined: "The alarming rise of radical nationalism in Israel" --
former IDF soldier Arik Ben-Zvi described just some of the disgraceful

Under the catchy slogan "No
citizenship without loyalty" (it rhymes in Hebrew), Yisrael Beiteinu is
pushing for a new law requiring all citizens to swear an "oath of
loyalty" to the state. Israeli-Arab citizens or others who refuse could have their citizenship stripped from them. . . .

accuses Israeli-Arab lawmakers of harboring Hamas sympathies, and has
called for the parties to be banned from running in the election. His
campaign ads show Israeli-Arab students demonstrating against the Gaza
war as a narrator ominously intones, "We won't forget that, during the
Gaza conflict, there were those among us who stood with Hamas." As for
the Gaza operation itself, Lieberman has denounced the cease-fire as a
sell-out of the military. His preferred strategy is total war
against the Gazan population: "We must continue to fight Hamas just
like the United States did with the Japanese in World War II." The
message is clearly finding its audience.
Of particular concern is evidence suggesting Lieberman's appeal is growing among young voters.

February, 2000, Austria held a national election in which the
far-right, anti-immigrant party of Joerg Haider stunned the world by
attracting 26% of the vote and becoming a part of the ruling
parliamentary coalition headed by the Austrian People's Party
(though Haider himself had no position in the government). This is how the United States reacted to those results:

United States is temporarily recalling its ambassador from Vienna
following the swearing in of a new coalition government that includes
the far-right Freedom Party. . . .

Speaking at a news
conference in Washington, Mrs Albright said: "We have decided to limit
our contacts with the new government and we will see whether further
actions are necessary to advance our support for democratic values."

The U.S. wasn't the only country to punish Austria for this outcome:

has recalled its ambassador and has announced that Joerg Haider, the
party's figurehead, will not be allowed into the country.

"Israel cannot remain silent in the face of the rise of extremist right-wing parties,
in particular in those countries which played a role in the events
which brought about the eradication of a third of the Jewish people in
the Holocaust," a foreign ministry statement said.

Haider/Lieberman comparison isn't perfect. Haider had made a handful of
stray reprehensible comments which were anti-Semitic or even
sympathetic to former Nazi Party members, but the platform on which he
actually ran had nothing to do with that. It was the standard
nativist, anti-immigrant cant sweeping much of the European Right at
the time. Arguably, though, Lieberman's Arab-hating bile is even
worse. Whereas Haider, an Austrian citizen, was demonizing foreign
immigrants seeking to enter the country, Lieberman himself is an
immigrant to Israel and is demonizing citizens who have been Israelis
far longer than he has.

The U.S. already pays a very substantial price for its decades-long, blind and one-sided support for Israeli actions. The New York Times yesterday published an Op-Ed
from Alaa Al Aswany -- an obviously pro-Obama, pro-American Egyptian
describing the pervasive anger in Egypt that has already arisen towards
Obama as a result of his deafening silence on the Israeli attack on

A new BBC poll of worldwide opinion (.pdf), conducted by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA),
surveyed 21 countries from six continents and asked whether the
influence exerted by various nations in the world was positive or
negative. The three countries most viewed as having a negative
influence in the world -- essentially tied with one another -- were
Iran, Pakistan and Israel, all of whom finished just behind North Korea
-- and this poll was conducted before Israel's attack on Gaza. Even
before the war on Gaza, Israel was viewed overwhelmingly negatively in
every country except two -- the U.S., where citizens view Israel
favorably by a not very large 13-point margin (47-34%), and Russia,
where public opinion is split. In every other country, the view of
Israel's influence on the world is significantly negative -- in most
cases, overwhelmingly so.

U.S. support for Israel has been
particularly costly over the last several years, as Israel bombed
Lebanon and demolished chunks of Gaza (using American weapons to do
so), and continued its policy of settlement expansion in the West Bank
- all with various means of American support playing a critical role.
Yet now Israel appears poised to install as Prime Minister someone
whose criticisms have been that Israel hasn't gone far enough and who
vows even more severe aggression. Worse still, the Israeli Government
is likely to have as a prominent component a political party that is
blatantly racist, anti-democratic and bloodthirsty.

If, as it
appears, the face Israel is now choosing for itself is that of Benjamin
Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, then the cost to the United States of
ongoing, one-sided support for Israel is going to skyrocket, and the
need for serious change in U.S. policy towards Israel will be even more
acute. It's worth recalling that Barack Obama, when still seeking the
Democratic nomination in February, 2008, said:

think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says
unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel, then
you're anti-Israel, and that can't be the measure of our friendship with Israel.

It will be vital to ensure that Obama actually meant that. Netanyahu's pledge to allow the still-further expansion of West Bank settlements makes an already-distant two-state solution less viable still, and his explicit vow to keep the Golan Heights "forever" makes negotiations with Syria doomed from the start. He actually just objected that Israel's destruction of huge parts of Gaza "did not go far enough." As The Washington Post's Jackson Diehl put it this morning:

past four Israeli elections have been won by a candidate who promised
to end Israel's conflict with the Palestinians. Tomorrow, for the first
time in decades, Israelis may choose a prime minister who is promising
to wage war. . . .

[Netanyahu] advocates putting
Israeli-Palestinian peace talks on hold indefinitely and says he will
not stop the expansion of Jewish settlements. He has never endorsed the
creation of a sovereign Palestinian state . . . .

In short,
just at the moment that a new U.S. administration launches a policy
aimed at addressing the multiple conflicts of the Middle East with
intensive diplomacy, it may find itself with an Israeli partner that
rejects negotiations with its neighbors and does its best to push the
United States toward military confrontation with Iran and its proxies.

it is Israel's apparent tolerance for a plainly racist,
anti-democratic, warmongering ultra-nationalistic party -- parked smack
in the middle of its ruling government -- that would have an even
larger impact than Netanyahu's election.

The strongest argument
for the U.S.-Israel alliance has always been Israel's largely
democratic character - its robust free speech and press rights, its
political debates that are typically more open and vibrant than those
in the U.S., and most of all, its tolerance of religious diversity and
the remarkable (though imperfect) assimilation of its Arab citizens
into its political, economic and cultural life. Whatever legitimate
objections in those areas critics of Israel have had, they paled when
compared to the repressive and dissent-intolerant governments that
ruled virtually every other country in that region.

pluralism and democratic processes won't come to a grinding halt
because Avigdor Lieberman occupies a key cabinet post (just as
Austria's didn't when Haider's Freedom Party joined the ruling
coalition). But the statement Israel is making to the world about what
it wants to be and how it perceives itself will be unmistakably clear.
This is a country that has waged two brutal wars against largely
defenseless neighbors in the past three years, that just banned certain
Arab political parties from existing (a ban reversed by its Supreme
Court), and that continues expansions on land that does not belong to
it despite those expansions being universally condemned and declared
illegal in numerous international tribunals. And now, it is turning to
political leaders who believe that these measures have been insufficiently aggressive
and who vow far more aggression and, in the case of Lieberman, even
more internal repression of its own ethnic and religious minorities.

like all countries, has the right to choose what leaders it wants.
But as is also always true, other countries have the right -- and, in
the case of the U.S. as the enabler of virtually everything Israel
does, the responsibility -- to react appropriately. It's bad enough
that we have tied ourselves so blindly and inextricably to Israel as it
has existed over the past several years. But an Israel led by
Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman produces whole new
responsibilities for the U.S. not to continue on this path of
uncritical support for a government like that.

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