Right and racist

Published : May 08, 2009 00:00 IST

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset on April 6.-DAN BALILTY/AP

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset on April 6.-DAN BALILTY/AP

THE formation of a coalition government in Israel headed by an avowed hawk, Benjamin Netanyahu, more than a month after the election results were announced is more bad news for the region and the world. For the first time in the history of the Jewish state, individuals and parties with fascist ideas have seized important levers of power. The coalition government, led by the right-wing Likud Party, has as its major partner the Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is Our Home) Party led by the racist demagogue Avigdor Lieberman.

In order to give the government a secular mask and make it more palatable to the international community, the Labour Party, under the leadership of Ehud Barak, has also been co-opted. In the words of the veteran peace activist and former Cabinet Minister Uri Avnery, by making a deal with Labour, Netanyahu has in one stroke turned a government of lepers, which would have been viewed by the whole world as a crazy bunch of ultra-nationalists, racists and fascists, into a sane and balanced government of the centre. All this, without changing its character in the least.

Lieberman, who was born in Moldova, has been given charge of the Foreign Ministry. He is currently under investigation in Israel for tax evasion, fraud and money laundering. One of his first statements after being named Foreign Minister was to debunk the United States-sponsored Annapolis peace process.

His partys manifesto calls for the 1.5 million Palestinians in Israel to be subjected to a loyalty oath to the Jewish state. If they fail to submit, the manifesto emphasises, Palestinians should be booted out of Israel to join the millions of stateless Palestinians living in refugee camps. Just before Israelis went to the polls, there was a Lieberman-inspired move in the Knesset (parliament) to bar Palestinian parties from fielding candidates. Lieberman himself resides in an illegal settler colony, outside the internationally recognised borders of Israel.

The move was supported by the so-called centrist parties, including the Kadima Party led by Tzipi Livni. The move could have succeeded but for the intervention of the Israeli High Court, which termed it illegal. Lieberman had on a previous occasion called for the execution of Knesset members who met the elected Hamas leadership in Gaza. He told an Israeli newspaper that his priority was entrenching of the Jewish state. He went on to add that if there was a contradiction between democratic and Jewish values then the Jewish and Zionist values are more important. In his book My Truth, Lieberman writes that the Arab minority, which today constitutes one-fifth of Israels population, poses the greatest threat to the future of Israel. This opinion has been voiced by the leaders of the Left parties in a more diplomatic manner. They prefer to refer to the Palestinians inside Israel as a demographic problem, which needs to be addressed urgently.

Lieberman, who was a night club bouncer in Moldova, is not known for diplomatic niceties. In 1998, he advised the Israeli government to bomb the Aswan Dam because Egypt supported the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) and its chief Yasser Arafat. More recently, he told Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to go to hell. In January, during Israels war on the civilian population of Gaza, Lieberman said that Israel must continue to fight Hamas just like the U.S. did with the Japanese in the Second World War. He was no doubt suggesting that Israel drop nuclear weapons on Gaza as the Americans did over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Liebermans extremist views are no doubt alarming to the rest of the world but they do have a receptive audience in Israel. His party got around 10 per cent of the votes polled in the last general elections. The outgoing Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, has voiced support for Liebermans idea of forcibly expelling the Palestinian population.

In an interview to Haaretz, Olmert said that if Jews did not separate from the Palestinians, then Israel would cease to be a Jewish democracy. The Israeli political establishment, cutting across the political divide, has concluded that the only way to retain a Jewish state is by instigating even more violence and repression against the Palestinian majority, which just refuses to accept defeat.

Netanyahu, who is close to the American neoconservatives who shaped the U.S. policy during the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, was one of the most vocal opponents of the Oslo accords. This time, he ran for the elections on a pledge of giving a proper burial to the peace process.

During his first stint as Prime Minster in the mid-1990s, he speeded up the illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem. But it was the Labour government under Ehud Barak, which succeeded the Likud government, that further accelerated the settlement programme under the benign gaze of Washington. In fact, the Centre-Left Labour-led government was responsible for the building of more settlements in the West Bank than even the Likud government.

Recent history shows that no Israeli government has been serious about statehood for Palestinians. Yitzhak Rabin had told close colleagues after the signing of the Oslo accords that there was no provision for a separate state in the document. In a way, Rabin was correct. The Palestinian side, in a hurry to sign the Oslo accords, did not bother to look at the fine print. There was no mention of self-determination or independence for Palestinians in the accords.

All the same, the international community remains committed to a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine issue. U.S. President Barack Obama told the Turkish Parliament during his recent visit to the country that the U.S. remained strongly committed to Israelis and Palestinians living side by side in peace and tranquillity. In a message obviously intended for Tel Aviv, Obama demanded that both sides adhere to the goals laid out in the Road Map (the international peace plan signed in 2003) and the one (creation of Palestinian state) at the Annapolis Conference. The incoming Israeli Foreign Minister had in his induction speech in the last week of March said that Israel was no longer bound by the commitments made at Annapolis and was changing its policies vis-a-vis the peace process.

Israel does not take orders from Obama, was the reaction of Gilad Erdan, a senior Cabinet Minister belonging to the Likud Party, to Obamas speech in Ankara. Erdan said that the people of Israel, by voting for Netanyahu, had sent a message that they will not become the 51st State of the U.S.. Israel is the biggest recipient of U.S. military aid every year. But for American munificence along with diplomatic and political support, Israel would not have survived in its present incarnation.

The Israeli establishment is worried about the course the new U.S. administration is going to take in West Asia. The Obama administration has promised a new relationship with the Muslim world in general and the Arab region in particular. Washington knows that the resolution of the Palestinian problem is the surest way to achieve this goal. To the chagrin of the Israeli establishment, Obama has already shown a willingness to engage with Iran at a time when Netanyahu is threatening to bomb the country. The Israeli Prime Minister continues to maintain that Iran is a clear and present danger to the very existence of the Jewish state.

There are strong indications that Obama is giving the Palestinian issue much more importance than the previous administration. At the same time, Israel and its powerful domestic lobby in the U.S. are working overtime to stall any meaningful new peace initiative from Washington. The case of the former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Charles Freeman, is an illustration. Obama had named him to the important post of Chairman of the National Intelligence Council (NIC). He would have been in charge of summarising the intelligence reports of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, which employ around 100,000 people.

His appointment was immediately met with strong protests from lawmakers, academics and prominent columnists having strong ties with Israel. Freeman was wrongly accused of being in the pay of Chinese and Arab business interests. Though his immediate boss, Admiral Dennis Blair, the Director of National Intelligence, defended him, Freeman chose to resign in the face of unremitting hostility from influential sections of the political establishment. Admiral Blair was of the view that Freeman was just the kind of man the Obama administration needed to revitalise Americas intelligence services, which were highly politicised during the Bush years and skewed in favour of Israel.

Freemans guilt, in Israeli eyes, was that he was an expert on West Asia and the Israel-Arab conflict. In a speech in 2005, he criticised Israels high-handed and self-defeating policies originating in the occupation and settlement of Arab lands. He described Israels policy of occupation as inherently violent. In another speech, in 2007, Freeman said that the U.S. had embraced Israels enemies as our own and that Arabs had retaliated by equating Americans with Israelis as their enemies. He charged the previous administration with backing Israels efforts to pacify its captive and increasingly ghettoised Arab populations and to seize ever more Arab land for its colonists. Freeman also rightly concluded that the terrorism the U.S. faced was to a great extent because of the brutal oppression of the Palestinian population by an Israeli occupation that has lasted over 40 years and shows no signs of ending.

Obama did not come out in support of Freeman as he came under the sustained attack of the powerful Jewish lobby. The President has still not found the confidence to challenge the pro-Israel lobby. In fact, during the campaign for the presidency, he openly pandered to it, going to the extent of saying that Jerusalem should be the capital of Israel. The Washington Post wrote that the Obama administration suffered an embarrassing defeat at the hands of the lobbyists the President vowed to keep in their place. Freeman stepped down with all guns firing. He said that unscrupulous people with a passionate attachment to the views of a political faction in a foreign country were behind his ouster.

After the barbaric attack on the civilian population of Gaza and now with the election of a rabid right-wing government, public sympathy for Israel in the U.S. is waning. In the middle of March, nine former senior U.S. officials and one current adviser to the Obama administration urged Washington to start a dialogue with the Hamas leadership. The bipartisan group includes economic recovery adviser to the Obama administration Paul A. Volcker and former National Security Advisers Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski.

Talking to Hamas would be a dramatic turnaround for the White House. Hamas has been classified as a terrorist organisation by the U.S. The group wants the White House to push hard on the Palestinian peace process. The new government, on the other hand, is trying its best to see that the peace process is not put back on track. The U.S. could finally end the policy of issuing blank cheques to Israel and may even rethink its special relationship with the Jewish state.

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