I’m writing this before the Israeli elections start, but you will probably read this after they’re over. It won’t matter. The results of the elections are in before the vote begins. The winners are Israeli chauvinism and anti-Palestinian racism. The losers are the Palestinians in the West Bank, in Gaza, and in the refugee camps across the Palestinian diaspora. And the Palestinians who live as second class citizens within the Green Line, now increasingly under threat of becoming non-citizens of Israel, and perhaps non-residents to boot.
A little more than 60 years ago, Ben-Gurion was scandalised by what he considered the fascism (and worse) of Menachem Begin, and the Revisionist militias and political organisations, and he refused to allow Begin any role in his government. To Ben-Gurion, the Revisionists — later to become Likud — were Nazis and Hitler, and he rejected them loudly, passionately, unequivocally.
Indeed, a little more than 60 years ago, there was a splinter group from Begin’s Irgun militia, which was even more extreme. It was called LEHI, or the Stern Gang, and it had even offered to collaborate with the Nazis to help defeat Britain in World War II.
At the time, the self-identified socialists of Labour Zionism would have shuddered at the thought of such "fascists" commandeering the Zionist project. But this is exactly what happened. The terrorists and alleged fascists of Irgun and LEHI did have their day. Begin became Prime Minister when Likud swept to power in the 70s, and one of LEHI’s leaders, Yitzhak Shamir, became Prime Minister in the 80s.
This is not to say that Zionism was pure, but then it was hijacked by radical extremists. I think one could more properly argue that political Zionism was inherently ugly. Within its own racist dynamics, it was inevitable it would move towards greater extremes.
Although Ben-Gurion really was an extremely cynical politician, he did seem to find Begin’s revisionism shocking. Nevertheless, it was Ben-Gurion’s Labour Zionism that ethnically cleansed some 750,000 Palestinians from their homes between 1947-49, and then barred their return. They also demolished the homes and villages of the refugees. Then they forced Palestinians within Israel’s borders to live under martial law.
The "humane" left-of-centre Zionists shot refugees who tried to return to their homes, in the hope that such brutal measures would scare refugees into accepting their dispossession. The Labour Zionists launched brutal reprisals — utilising thugs like the young Ariel Sharon — to teach the Palestinians that they would respond to resistance of any sort with large-scale state terrorism. The Labour Zionists joined in with a brazen colonial invasion of Egypt in 1956, and occupied the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights and the Sinai in 1967. And it was Labour Zionists who began the colonisation of the West Bank.
Labour Zionists nevertheless regarded the Revisionists as shocking extremists. However, when you begin with such an extreme position as Labour had, taking a small jump to the right isn’t so surprising. The results, however, included an accelerated colonisation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and most appallingly, the 1982 war on Lebanon.
Let us now, however, consider the newest jump to the right. It appears that Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu is positioned to become Israel’s third-largest party, behind Kadima and Likud, but ahead of Labour. Indeed, Lieberman is a truly extreme figure espousing brazen anti-Arab racism and transparent anti-democratic convictions.
Consider, for example, Lieberman’s recent interview with Ha‘aretz. He explained that citizenship in Israel could be revoked for the "disloyal". And who is disloyal in Israel? Well, that would be up to Lieberman’s government to decide. His government would decide, based on whatever criteria it chooses. For those who don’t share his values, Lieberman invokes a "right of expulsion". That is, Lieberman thinks Israel should be able to disenfranchise and then expel Israelis (and that means Palestinians), at Israeli discretion.
Of course, for those who consider this fascism, Lieberman isn’t particularly abashed. He has explained that when Zionism and democracy clash, "the Jewish and Zionist values are more important". Indeed, he thought an appropriate way to achieve a "real victory" in the latest assault on Gaza would be by treating the Palestinians like the Japanese were treated "in the last days of World War II". Whether or not Lieberman’s policies would differ from other parties when in power, this rhetoric is pro-exterminationist.
It is not surprising to learn that Lieberman used to belong to Kach. For those unfamiliar with that group, it was a pro-terrorist, theocratic, political organisation, led by the now assassinated Rabbi Meir Kahane. Ehud Sprinzak says a "typical speech" by Kahane included mentioning that "[t]he Arabs are cancer, cancer, cancer in the midst of us". If Kahane were allowed two months as defence minister, "you will not have a single cockroach around here! I promise you a clean Eretz Yisrael". (For more on this, see Ehud Sprinzak’s The Ascendance of Israel’s Radical Right.)
As a recent Ha’aretz editorial noted, Lieberman’s racist chauvinism has begun to permeate the other parties. Labour and Kadima do not speak out against Lieberman, because they may need him to join any government they would want to form. As Ha’aretz noted, what people would not have said 10 or 20 years ago — "lest they be thought utter fascists" — has now become acceptable political discourse.
Okay, well that’s the new extreme right, which appears to be Israel’s third most popular party. What about the slightly older right — Likud? Well, there was an old controversy over one of its figures, Moshe Feiglin, who has been described as a fascist in the Israeli media. Likud’s leader Bibi Netanyahu was able to marginalise him, but his tentacles seem to be spreading over the party. But put Feiglin aside. Netanyahu apparently can’t find anything wrong with Lieberman’s view that Palestinians should be disenfranchised when they’re "disloyal".
Indeed, we’ll skip the "centrist" Kadima, which is just an offshoot of Likud, and go to the "centre-left" Labour. What principled objections has Labour made against Lieberman? The day before the elections, we can read in Ha’aretz that Labour’s leader Ehud Barak has finally criticised Lieberman’s campaign against "disloyal" Israelis. However, he has allowed himself a little leeway for negotiation because 1 per cent of Israeli Arabs actually are disloyal, in Barak’s estimation.
It should be noted that Barak has criticised Lieberman before now. For example, Barak has said that Lieberman is "big on words, not on action. Judging by his words, he has already destroyed Tehran and the Aswan Dam". However, as Barak scornfully notes, it is not clear "how often, if at all, he [has]held a gun and shot somebody". So this was the centre left’s opposition to the rise of a racist and quasi-fascist right during the election campaign: the quasi-fascists are lacking in murderous credentials.
Think of when Amos Oz criticised Labour for not dismantling settlements and for allowing settlers to go on rampages. Barak couldn’t ignore Oz, but he couldn’t respond on the issues. For those who would point to Barak’s belated disagreement with Lieberman as proof that Labour acts on principle, let’s just remember that Barak has refused to rule out joining a coalition with Lieberman.
Barak, Livni, Netanyahu — as Gideon Levy says, they’re all extremists. Barak was the leading figure in the barbaric Gaza massacre. They all support the siege on Gaza. None of them have any problem with starving Palestinian children. (Although the Meretz party, to its credit, has spoken out against Lieberman.)
Whether Netanyahu or Livni gets more votes on election day, their cynical courting of Avigdor Lieberman makes it hard for these leaders to credibly denounce him down the track. It still would have been possible to stigmatise Lieberman and marginalise him
into irrelevance in this election campaign (or, better still, earlier). However, the silence of the leading parties today makes possible his further
rise as a prime ministerial candidate tomorrow.
There was a time when I could read in the Australian Jewish News about how Jews were shamed by his racism. But now that Lieberman is closer to power, perhaps we should expect to see more articles in the AJN saying that he’s not so bad after all.
We are living in a troubling time, when the vast majority of Israeli Jews greet the war on Gaza with enthusiasm, and are reacting with indifference to the rise of Lieberman. Quite reasonably, increasing numbers of people are coming to doubt that forces within Israel will be able to end the occupation, or even prevent it from worsening. While I am not yet willing to come out in favour of it, who can fail to understand the case for boycotts, sanctions and divestment against Israel?
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