Imagine a country that appoints someone who has been found guilty of striking a 12-year-old boy to be its foreign minister. The person in question is also under investigation for money-laundering, fraud and breach of trust; in addition, he was a bona fide member of an outlawed racist party and currently leads a political party that espouses fascist ideas. On top of all this, he does not even reside in the country he has been chosen to represent.
Even though such a portrayal may appear completely outlandish, Israel's new foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, actually fits the above depiction to the letter.
- In 2001, following his own confession, Lieberman was found guilty of beating a 12-year-old boy. As part of a plea bargain, Lieberman was fined 17,500 shekels and had to promise never to hit young children again.
- In 2004, Lieberman's 21-year-old daughter Michal set up a consulting firm, which received 11m shekels from anonymous overseas sources. Lieberman, according to the police, received more than a 2.1m-shekel salary from the company for two years of employment. In addition, according to an investigation by Haaretz, he allegedly received additional severance pay - amounting to hundreds of thousands of shekels - in 2006 and 2007, while he was minister of strategic affairs and deputy prime minister. According to Israeli law, this is illegal.
- Lieberman is an ex-member of Meir Kahane's party, Kach, which was outlawed due to its blatantly racist platform. Moreover, his views towards Arabs do not appear to have changed over the years. In 2003, when reacting to a commitment made by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to give amnesty to approximately 350 Palestinian prisoners, Lieberman declared that, as minister of transport, he would be more than happy to provide buses to take the prisoners to the sea and drown them there.
- In January 2009, during Israel's war on Gaza, Lieberman argued that Israel "must continue to fight Hamas just like the United States did with the Japanese in the second world war. Then, too, the occupation of the country was unnecessary." He was referring to the two atomic bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
- Lieberman does not live in Israel according to its internationally recognised borders, but rather in an illegal settlement called Nokdim. Legally speaking, this would be like US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton residing in Mexico and UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband living on the Canary Islands.
And yet, despite these egregious transgressions, newly-elected Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has no qualms about appointing Lieberman to represent Israel in the international arena. Netanyahu's lust for power has led him to choose a man who actually poses a serious threat to Israel. Both Lieberman's message and style are not only violent, but have clear proto-fascist elements; and, as Israeli commentators have already intimated, he is extremely dangerous.
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Politics being politics, most western leaders will no doubt adopt a conciliatory position towards Lieberman, and agree to meet and discuss issues relating to foreign policy with him. Such a position can certainly be justified on the basis of Lieberman's democratic election; however much one may dislike his views, he is now the representative of the Israeli people. Those who decide to meet him can also claim that ongoing diplomacy and dialogue lead to the internalisation of international norms and thus moderate extremism.
These justifications carry weight. However, western leaders will also have to take into account that the decision to meet Lieberman will immediately be associated with the ban on Hamas, at least among people in the Middle East. In January 2006, Hamas won a landslide victory in elections that were no less democratic than the recent elections in Israel. While Hamas is, in many respects, an extremist political party that espouses violence, its politicians are representatives of the Palestinian people and are seen as struggling for liberation and self-determination.
If western leaders want to be conceived as credible, they must change their policy and meet with Hamas as well. Otherwise, their decision to meet Lieberman will be rightly perceived as hypocritical and duplicitous, and the pervasive perception in the region - that the United States and Europe are biased in Israel's favour - will only be strengthened.