Bradley Burston
October 21, 2010 - 12:00am

Is anyone on the mainstream Jewish right – anyone at all – willing to speak in defense of Avigdor Lieberman, the bully in the china shop of Israel's relationship with its Arab minority?

In particular, is anyone on the mainstream right prepared to step up and support his fascism bandwagon's snorting, noxious draft horse – the loyalty oath initiative?

Not the Zionist Organization of America. Normally a hair-trigger media machine, the hard-right ZOA has been uncharacteristically silent on Lieberman's showcase bill.

Not the Israel Project. The high-profile organization's stated purpose is to get "facts about Israel and the Middle East to press, public officials and the public." But when asked by the Haaretz U.S. correspondent Natasha Mozgovoya at a news conference how the Israel Project reacted to the cabinet passage of the oath, the reply of the organization's president and founder Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi was conspicuous in its brevity:

"We didn't put out a press release."

The nominally neutral but increasingly right-leaning Anti-Defamation League chided Israel's government - and by extension, both Lieberman and the man who crucially caved to him on the issue, Benjamin Netanyahu - over the patently discriminatory wording of the proposal.

The American Jewish Committee, dependably a right-center loyalist of Israeli government decisions, departed from custom to voice "concern" over the loyalty oath vote in a statement with a palpable sting:

"…applying different standards, based on ethnicity, to applicants seeking the country's citizenship may detract from the noble cause that the amendment purports to promote. AJC hopes that the Israeli Cabinet will carefully review all the ramifications of this amendment before it advances further."

Clearly, something has changed on the mainstream Jewish right. It goes beyond frustration over trying to defend the indefensible. It goes beyond defending a right-wing government, come what may. It is the dawning realization that for years, Lieberman has been misjudged and underrated by the mainstream right, which saw him as little more than a shrewd but contained manipulator of populist sentiment, catering to marginal immigrants.

The mainstream right has come to reassess Lieberman. It has come to acknowledge the toxicity of his divisiveness, to fear his growing clout, and to recoil from a nightmarish suspicion:

In his systematic, stepwise march toward rolling back democracy and the rights of Israel's Arab citizens, Lieberman has become Meir Kahane.

Branding the oath "damaging and above all, dangerous," Yehuda Ben Meir, a former lawmaker of the rightist National Religious Party, wrote this week that Lieberman's ultimate goal is to force legislators to take the loyalty pledge "in order to prevent Arab Knesset members, most or all of whom will refuse to swear such an oath, from serving in the legislature."

"Israel's image as a democratic country is of vital importance to it," concluded the U.S.-born Ben Meir. "An amendment to the Basic Law on the Knesset that keeps the Arabs out will be very harmful to this image and will do unimaginable damage to the state. It is to be hoped the prime minister will come to his senses before it is too late."

For years, the parallels between Kahane and Lieberman have been hiding in plain sight.

Both Martin David Kahane and his onetime disciple Yvet Lieberman were immigrants to Israel who reinvented themselves as the ostensible true voice of the Jewish Israeli common man. Both had a checkered past. Both, in the manner of immigrants, understood Israelis better than Israelis did.

Both addressed and exploited the alienation, the marginality of the Jewish immigrant to Israel, the Israeli whom Israelis see as a pathetic permanent foreigner. Both told the immigrant that whether they came from Bialystok or Brooklyn, they could be more Israeli than the Israelis by defining what an Israeli was, at the direct expense of native-born Arab citizens.

One question that, in the end, answers itself, is how it took the right so long to wake up to the threat Lieberman poses – not only to Netanyahu and the Likud, but to the very survival of Israel. After all, for an Israeli politician he has been unusually candid. He has been nothing but himself.

He will stop at nothing. He will use the world's premier platform, the rostrum of the United Nations General Assembly, to simultaneously undermine his own prime minister, mount a campaign speech intended for domestic consumption, and lend credence to those who take Israelis to task for being unwilling to make peace.

The right certainly should have known. The former nightclub bouncer from Moldova behaves for all the world like a former nightclub bouncer. A man, who confessed to and was convicted of threatening a 12-year-old boy, conducts affairs of state like a man capable of physically assaulting a 12-year-old boy.

The man who has spoken in the past of "erasing" parts of Palestinian Jericho and of drowning Palestinian prisoners at sea, and who suggested that Arab MKs who met with Hamas be executed, has become Israel's representative to the world community.

The right has woken late, but there are signs that it has finally begun to respond. The prime minister, under an avalanche of criticism for the oath – and mindful that he may now not have enough votes to win Knesset passage - has reversed field once again, seeking changes in the law before it is presented to the parliament.

Meanwhile, much of the biting criticism of the loyalty oath has come from prominent and increasingly troubled voices on the right and right-center, notably hawkish Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin and veteran Likud cabinet minister Dan Meridor.

In an article titled "Not racism. Stupidity" hardline polemicist Ben Dror Yemini wrote in Maariv Newspaper that while many of the stated goals of the law were worthy, it remains a "stupid, superfluous amendment" to Israel's law on citizenship.

However this plays out, Netanyahu seems most likely to emerge the loser. Weeks ago, when the oath was still under cabinet consideration - and Netanyahu under the gun to accept security incentives from Washington to approve an extension of the settlement freeze - rumor had it that the prime minister had reversed a prior position and gone along with the oath as Lieberman dictated, as part of a deal under which Lieberman would agree to a further freeze.

Whether this is true or not remains to be seen, but Netanyahu said yes, and there has been no extension.

If, in the end, there is a deal and a freeze returns, the right will view Netanyahu as having sold out. If there is no deal, Israelis across the spectrum will see the prime minister as having caved in.

And how do they view Lieberman now? The best indication may have come in a poll published at the weekend. Asked - and the very question says a great deal about the current atmosphere in Israel - "Who among politicians contributes the most to the rise in trends of extremist nationalism, to the point of fascism?" fully 60% of Israelis responding answered "Avigdor Lieberman."


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