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The rise of the rightwinger who takes his cue from Putin

By Jonathan Steele in Jerusalem
The Guardian
2 November 2006,,1937015,00.html

The return to power of Avigdor Lieberman and his anti-Arab
racism is a mark of the point Israeli politics has now

At one level you have to hand it to the Israelis. Once
cleared into the the Knesset, the parliament building,
journalists can wander into the members` cafeteria without
an escort. Cheaply made tables are packed together as
closely as in an airport terminal, and ministers queue to
load their trays with no priority over backbenchers.
Avigdor Lieberman, the ultra-rightwinger, hunches over a
soup bowl by the window. Two tables away Ahmed Tibi, an
Arab who is deputy speaker, chats to reporters in between
fielding mobile phone calls. It is admirably egalitarian
and unstuffy, but the mood was far from relaxed on Monday.
The government majority was just about to vote to approve
Ehud Olmert`s appointment of Lieberman as deputy prime
minister, with a brief to handle the `strategic threats`
which Israel faces.

Tibi was furious. In other parts of the world a man like
Lieberman - `a very dangerous and sophisticated politician
who has won his support through race hatred` - would be
shunned, he fulminated. In Israel he was given a top job.

Lieberman has described Tibi and other Israeli Arabs who
have met Hamas officials as traitors. They should be
executed, he said last year, just as the judges at
Nuremberg condemned not only Nazi leaders but those who
collaborated with them. Lieberman also advocates stripping
Arabs in north-eastern Israel of their citizenship and
putting their areas under Palestinian rule. In return,
Israel should take more land on the West Bank than even
Olmert envisages.

Tibi was not worried that the government `would become
more brutal` because of Lieberman`s presence in cabinet.
After all, the mushrooming of roadblocks in the West Bank,
the assassinations in Gaza and the war on Lebanon happened
without him. `Our problem is with Israeli society,` said
Tibi. `The appointment of this racist and fascist sends a
message to me as an Arab and a human being.`

Sitting in the cafeteria alongside Tibi, Zehava Galon, who
leads the parliamentary wing of Meretz, Israel`s small
leftwing party, was equally appalled. Her anger was
directed at the Labour party ministers in Olmert`s
coalition for failing to resign in protest. This was bound
to lower politicians` public respect by several more
notches, she said. She had written a letter to the Labour
caucus arguing that Lieberman was worse than Austria`s
Joerg Haider or France`s Jean-Marie Le Pen. But only one
minister chose to leave the government.

`Lieberman`s appointment will influence the whole
atmosphere of Israeli society,` said Galon. `Ministers are
only interested in keeping their chairs ... Politicians
are already seen as cynical, with no values, no ideology,
no principles. This will make it worse. There is no
leftwing camp in Israel now. If the Labour party thinks
it`s legitimate to be allied with Lieberman, I can no
longer consider them left, liberal or democratic. This
appointment is a terrorist attack on democracy.`

As her gloom and anger mounted, the man himself carried on
lunching, pausing only to take a few questions from the
Guardian. In a mixture of Russian and English, he told me
that his priorities in government would be `to establish a
proper process of decision-making` and push through `a
strategic vision for the final solution of how Israel will
look in 20 or 25 years` time ... It`s not only an issue of
territory and borders but of the character of the state -
will it be a Zionist state, a Jewish state, or a state
like others? I want it to be a Jewish state.`

Labour ministers acknowledge that their support was
crumbling before the Lieberman appointment. Amir Peretz,
their party leader, currently has a poll rating as a
potential prime minister of a derisory 1%. He is one of
the first defence ministers with no military background -
`the only things which have ever whistled past him are
ping pong balls`, as one opponent sneered. He was widely
criticised for his performance in the Lebanon war.
Meanwhile, Labour`s promises to use its role in government
to protect spending on social services came to little. The
latest budget lifts military spending even higher.

Nevertheless, it was better to stay in the cabinet, since
Lieberman was only one of 25 ministers, maintained Yuli
Tamir, the education minister. Lieberman`s role was
defined narrowly. He was not in charge of defence or
foreign policy, and had no spending powers.

Given the public`s disillusionment with politicians,
wouldn`t it raise Labour`s standing to resign, I asked.
`It`ll go up for a moment, but resigning is only popular
for a while,` replied Tamir. `Besides, we thought
Lieberman would have more power if we pulled out.`

While Labour`s critics call the party`s bigwigs cynical
for clinging to their cabinet seats, no one overlooks the
cynicism of Olmert and Lieberman. By bringing Lieberman
into the cabinet, Olmert has given his unstable coalition
a sudden new burst of life. Struggling after the fiasco of
the war in Lebanon, he now has 78 votes in the 120-seat
Knesset and is safe from being toppled.

Lieberman`s motives are also clear. A protege of the
former Likud prime minister Bibi Netanyahu, he formed his
own party after Netanyahu lost power in 1999. He got his
initial support from post-Soviet Russian immigrants,
appealing to their anti-Arab racism and instinct for tough
leadership. Taking his cue from Vladimir Putin in the
Kremlin, Lieberman advocates raising the threshold for
small parties to get into parliament, thereby effectively
shutting the Arab ones out.

Recently he has sought to broaden his political base and,
since Lebanon, polls have shown him with twice as much
support as Olmert, though still not as much as his old
mentor, Netanyahu, who tops the current rankings. Joining
Olmert`s government allows him to get a different profile
from Netanyahu. It also gives him a chance to pull Olmert
in a hardline direction and take credit for it at the next

Lieberman has been in government before. He served twice
under Sharon, but was sacked for his `population swap`
ideas and for opposing the disengagement from Gaza. The
fact that Sharon`s successor has brought him back, this
time as a deputy prime minister, shows how far to the
right Israel`s policy makers have moved, even as
progressive Israelis feel increasingly sickened by the
musical chairs at the top. Recent corruption and sex
scandals had already tarnished the image of the political
class. Now people wonder which is worse: Lieberman coming
in or Labour not going out.

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