It was unthinkable, when I was based as a correspondent in Jerusalem two decades ago, that an Israeli politician who openly advocated ethnically cleansing the Palestinians from Israeli-controlled territory, as well as forcing Arabs in Israel to take loyalty oaths or be forcibly relocated to the West Bank, could sit on the Cabinet. The racist tirades of Jewish proto-fascists like Meir Kahane stood outside the law, were vigorously condemned by most Israelis and were prosecuted accordingly. Kahane's repugnant Kach Party, labeled by the United States, Canada and the European Union as a terrorist organization, was outlawed by the Israeli government in 1988 for inciting racism.
Israel has changed. And the racist virus spread by Kahane, whose thugs were charged with the murders and beatings of dozens of unarmed Palestinians and whose members held rallies in Jerusalem where they chanted "Death to Arabs!" has returned to Israel in the figure of Israel's powerful new foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman. Lieberman openly calls for an araberrein Israel-an Israel free of Arabs.
There has been a steady decline from the days of the socialist Labor Party, which founded Israel in 1948 and held within its ranks many leaders, such as Yitzhak Rabin, who were serious about peaceful coexistence with the Palestinians. The moral squalor of Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and Lieberman reflects the country's degeneration. Labor, like Israel, is a shell of its old self. Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu Party, with 15 seats in the Knesset, is likely to bring down the Netanyahu government the moment his power base is robust enough to move him into the prime minister's office. He is the new face of the Jewish state.
Lieberman, a former nightclub bouncer who was a member of the Kach Party, has the personal and political habits of the Islamic goons he opposes. He was found guilty in 2001 of beating a 12-year-old boy and fined by an Israeli court. He is being investigated for multimillion-dollar fraud and money laundering and is rumored to have close ties with the Russian mafia. He lives, in defiance of international law, in the Jewish settlement of Nokdim on occupied Palestinian land.
Lieberman, as did his mentor Kahane, calls for the eradication of Palestinians from Israel and the territories it occupies. During the massive Israeli bombardment of Gaza in December and January he said that Israel should fight Hamas the way the United States fought the Japanese in World War II. He noted that occupation of Japan was unnecessary to achieve victory, alluding to the dropping of atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. When he assumed his position as foreign minister he announced that the 2007 Annapolis peace agreement was dead. He said in 2004 that 90 percent of Israel's Palestinian citizens "have no place here. They can take their bundles and get lost." This statement was especially galling since Lieberman, unlike the Palestinian majority who can trace their ancestry in the region back generations, immigrated to Israel in 1978 from Moldova and retains a heavy Russian accent.
Lieberman, from the floor of the Knesset, openly fantasized three years ago about executing the handful of Palestinian Knesset members.
"We requested that in the government guidelines it would say explicitly that all the inciters and collaborators with terrorism that sit in this house should bear the brunt of the penalty for those actions," Lieberman said from the Knesset plenum in May of 2006. "All those who continue to meet freely with Hamas and Hezbollah-who go on monthly visits to Lebanon. Those who declared Israel's Independence Day to be Nakba [Arabic for catastrophe] Day and raised black flags. ...
"World War Two ended with the Nuremberg trials. The heads of the Nazi Party went to be executed-but not just them, also those who collaborated with them. Just like [prime minister of Vichy France during WWII Pierre] Laval was later executed, I hope that this is the fate of the collaborators in this house."
He has suggested bombing Egypt's Aswan Dam, an act that would lead to a massive loss of Egyptian lives. As Ariel Sharon's minister of transportation he offered to bus several hundred Palestinian prisoners to the sea and drown them. He recently told the president of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, one of Israel's few Arab allies, to "go to hell." And, along with Netanyahu, he advocates massive airstrikes on Iran's nuclear facilities.
Hamas, the Iranian government and the Taliban have been condemned by Washington for advocating policies that mirror those expressed by Lieberman toward Palestinians. Ahmed Tibi, an Arab deputy in the Knesset, has called on the international community to boycott Israel as it did Austria when far-right leader Jorg Haider joined that country's government. This seems a fair request. But I expect the hypocrisy and double standards that characterize our relations with the Middle East, along with our obsequious catering to the Israel lobby, to prevail. Racism, as long as it is directed toward Arabs, does little to perturb our conscience or hinder our support of Israel.
The Israeli leadership, following the assassination of Rabin by a Jewish extremist with ties to Kach, never again sought a viable settlement with the Palestinians. Successive Israeli prime ministers talked the language of peace and negotiations largely to placate the international community and Washington while they vigorously expanded Jewish settlements on Palestinian land, seized huge tracts of the West Bank, including most of the aquifers, and imposed a brutal collective punishment on the 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza. Palestinians have become, by Israeli design, impoverished, reduced to a level of bare subsistence and dependent on the United Nations for food assistance. They live ringed by Israeli troops in a series of pod-like ghettos in the West Bank and in Gaza, which is a massive, fetid open-air prison. And when these little Bantustans become restive, Israel swiftly turns off the delivery of basic food and supplies or uses F-16 fighter jets or heavy artillery to bomb the squalid concrete hovels.
The public embrace by a senior Israeli official of a policy of ethnic cleansing, however, is ominous. It signals a further evolution of the Israeli state from one that at least paid lip service to equality to one that increasingly resembles the former apartheid regime in South Africa. Racism, once practiced in private and condemned in public, has become to many Israelis acceptable.