As I sat to write these words, a pro-democracy demonstration in Tel Aviv was winding down. Reports I received from colleagues at the march estimated the number at 20,000 in attendance, and YNET reports 15,000. This is most welcome news, and one hopes it is an indication that Israelis have woken up and recognize the threat that has grown in their midst. Another, more important, albeit much slimmer hope, is that they will also collectively realize that the side toward fascism is the inevitable result of a society that is both embroiled in constant conflict and is holding millions of others under siege or under military occupation.
Israelis have been forced to the streets out of self-interest, the decay of Israel’s democratic structures, however imperfect they may always have been. Israeli blogger Noam Sheizaf sent out a tweet from the march saying that the “loudest booing to Ehud Barak, labor, for taking part in Netanyahu’s government.” But if we put a face to the assault on Israeli democracy, we inevitably see Avigdor Lieberman.
Is Lieberman, who makes the claim, with some justification at least for the moment, that he now represents the mainstream of Israeli society, really the boogeyman many of us make him out to be? Well, we have a chance to see it in his own words.
On Friday, Yediot Ahoronot, the major Israeli daily paper, ran an extensive interview with Lieberman. As far as I know, it appeared only in the print edition and only in Hebrew. For various reasons, I cannot reprint the entire interview here, but a few pieces of it will serve to allow Lieberman to demonstrate just who he really is. So, with my comments interspersed below, here is Avigdor Lieberman…
“This is an interesting phenomenon that I’ve noticed: when the left wing wants to delegitimize someone in the right wing, they always find someone from the national camp to help them. Likud people like Dan Meridor and Benny Begin gave the left wing the seal of approval to attack me. This reminds me of global anti-Semitism, the anti-Semites also always find some Israeli to help them attack Jews. “
Meridor and Begin, both hawks and part of the national right, also believe in freedom of speech for Israeli citizens (an important distinction—it would be a different story for the millions of Palestinians under Israeli rule who are not citizens). But Meridor and Begin, both of Likud, are in this regard carrying on a traditional Revisionist view that started with the father of the Israeli right, Ze’ev Jabotinsky and continued with his disciple, Menachem Begin, Benny’s father.
In Lieberman’s mind, this fundamental position of the Israeli right is tantamount to being a Jewish collaborator with anti-Semitism, with the anti-Semites in this case being Israeli peace and human rights organizations. Of course, he’s only drawing a metaphor, but he’s not talking about people opposing him politically, he refers to it as “de-legitimizing.” Such hyperbole is intentional, meaning to raise the political volume…not unlike Sarah Palin and her coldly anti-Semitic and cynical use of “blood libel.”
“I can tell you already that the picture being assembled so far is worse than you can imagine. When I look at the Gush Shalom organization and I read its web site, which is put up by an American server, about ‘Israeli war criminals,’ I reach the conclusion that this is lawlessness, and not democracy’s right to act. It is our right to defend ourselves from these kinds of organizations.”
You can check out Gush Shalom’s web site for yourself. Whether you agree with their opinions or not, it is obvious that this is political dissent, and far milder than literally thousands of web sites one can find all over the internet. Lieberman is saying this is a criminal group, an “attack” on the state of Israel. Lieberman is making himself as plain as can be—he wishes to criminalize political dissent and strip Israelis of the right to free speech.
We need not even mention the fact that Gush Shalom is headed by Uri Avnery, who was a fighter in the Irgun, the right-wing paramilitary group, in 1948 and is a former member of the Knesset. They believe Israel has committed war crimes, and they say so. For this, Lieberman is prepared to declare them enemies of the state. Can you imagine a better definition of a fascist?
Note as well that Lieberman says nothing about Gush Shalom’s funding. His words apply even if every shekel they spend comes from Israeli Jews. This further exposes the cynical hate campaign the proposed Knesset commission really is.
Q: But the sources of funding and the actions of right wing organizations can also be examined. The argument is that this is an anti-democratic step that is meant to mark and to elicit hatred of left wing organizations.
“What we have here is a combined effort of these organizations to destroy the only democracy in the Middle East. That is the substance of the argument now being waged. These are attempts to distort reality, to deter and to demonize Israel by all these organizations together.”
I really wish Israeli peace and human rights groups were capable of coordinating such a massive plan, but I can tell you from first-hand experience that, like everywhere else, they’re not. Any more than Lieberman is capable of working with many on the right.
What this is, however, is a paranoid rant and a wild conspiracy theory, on top of the scurrilous nature of the accusations. One can’t say if Lieberman is deluded enough to believe this or it is just more of his cynicism, but anyone who has ever worked with Peace Now or B’Tselem can tell you just what kind of fantastical drivel it is.
“During the Second Lebanon War these organizations supported Hizbullah and preferred to condemn IDF actions, in Operation Cast Lead they stood by Hamas’s side against the IDF. Naomi Chazan, the president of the New Israel Fund, signed a petition at the beginning of the operation that said: this slaughter can only exacerbate the conflict.”
Does one even need to comment on the absurdity of accusing groups like B’Tselem, New Israel Fund, ACRI and others of supporting Hezbollah? Many Israelis objected to the Lebanon War of 2006 on a number of levels. The destruction of civilian infrastructure was massive, while Hezbollah suffered only a few months’ of regrouping work. For the first time since 1948, there were major attacks on the Israeli mainland, and over 350,000 Israelis fled their homes.
43 Israeli civilians and some hundreds of Lebanese civilians were killed, and around a million Lebanese civilians were displaced from their homes. There was every reason for any peace activist or anyone else to oppose this war, and to term it a slaughter—both sides targeted towns and cities to an appalling extent. One may disagree with Chazan’s statement, but to characterize it as support for Hezbollah is pure hate speech.
“Every Friday demonstrators clash with IDF soldiers in Bilin. These are not human rights organizations, and these are not legitimate demonstrations. Against whom are they demonstrating? Against a security fence that was approved by the High Court of Justice and meant to prevent the murder and attacks on innocent Israelis. What we have here is an attempt to attack the State of Israel. These people have never addressed the questions related to the status of the Arab woman and the torture in Palestinian jails.”
I’m glad to see that boldface lies still get under my skin, even after all this time working with politics. The demonstrations in Bi’lin are reported on by human rights organizations; that’s obviously their job. But they are organized by local Palestinians, not by Israeli groups. But the appalling lie is Lieberman’s mention of the High Court. That court has ruled that the barrier in Bi’lin is illegal and has repeatedly ordered the IDF to move it. The IDF has simply ignored the ruling, and that’s why Bi’lin has become such a center of protest and of attention from Israeli human rights groups. In fact, those groups are trying to sustain and defend the (rather tattered) integrity of the Israeli legal system.
The last point of his here is a worn smokescreen. Israeli groups, as with all other single-country human rights groups, monitor Israeli behavior regarding human rights. There are Palestinian human rights groups that monitor the PA and Hamas. Nonetheless, B’Tselem certainly does comment on every single Palestinian attack on Israelis and also does some work on Palestinian violations against their own people.
Q: These organizations say there is no need for a committee. They act with complete transparency, and everything is open.
“To this day there have been 25 commissions of inquiry formed by the Knesset, and only the committee that is meant to be formed to investigate the left wing organizations has elicited a massive uproar. This is not a coincidence. This is proof of the extent of how much this committee is necessary. This is a bull’s eye. What are they afraid of? I can promise that we will summon to this committee representatives of all the state agencies that can help expose the activity of the various organizations. We will invite top Income Tax Authority officials, the NPO registrar, the Israel Money Laundering and Terror Financing Prohibition Authority, the police and others.”
This speaks for itself. The other two dozen times such commissions were formed (and there sometimes were uproars over some of them, another Lieberman lie, though admittedly none of them involved anything like this level of outrage) they were formed for legitimate, national reasons. Some may have thought they were ill-advised, but the process has never before been so badly abused as this. And, again, Lieberman gives no indication that there is any reason to believe any of these groups have been anything less than fully transparent. There is no prima facie case and he knows it. Unlike, for example, the settler NGO ElAd which has been repeatedly criticized for its refusal to disclose the source of its funding. Somehow, this never seems to raise any concern from Lieberman or his equally dishonest ally, Gerald Steinberg of NGO Monitor.
So there it is, Lieberman in his own words. Maybe his star will fall and will not be, as some believe the next Prime Minister. I believe he will not be, as I think most centrist Israelis will shy away from the increasing fascism he represents.
So, those who say that Labor, Likud and Kadima are the real problem are right. But it is when Israelis do not confront the reality that all three of these parties have, in various ways, created the ongoing occupation, the problem of ever-expanding settlements, the siege of Gaza and the refusal of peace that a Lieberman rises. And, yes, if unchecked, he will end up being the face of Israel. And, even if he fails, without addressing the occupation and the domestic problem of increasing racism and segregation in Israel, another like him, or maybe worse, will rise in future.