Open racist invited into Olmert cabinet

November 2, 2006

Arab MPs demonstrated outside the Israeli parliament (Knesset) calling on other countries to impose sanctions on the Zionist state as Avigdor Lieberman, the openly racist anti-Arab leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu ("Israel is our home") party, was sworn into PM Ehud Olmert's cabinet on October 30.

Olmert, who has been resisting widespread calls for his government to resign following the debacle of its war on Lebanon in August, struck a deal which has resulted in Lieberman becoming deputy PM and "minister for strategic affairs". In return, Lieberman has guaranteed that for the rest of the government's elected term, the 11 Yisrael Beiteinu MPs will support the ruling Kadima-Labour coalition.

Prior to the March parliamentary election, the Labor party vowed never to serve as part of any government that included Yisrael Beiteinu. However, on October 29 the party's central committee voted overwhelmingly to remain in the coalition government.

According to the October 31 Tel Aviv Haaretz daily, Labor leader Amir Peretz's speech in favour of staying in the coalition was full of "hackneyed platitudes about national responsibility and political initiative and the hopelessness of sitting in the opposition".

A small group of Labor MPs, led by Ophir Pines-Paz opposed the majority decision. Pines-Paz resigned from his cabinet post as culture minister just hours before Lieberman was sworn in, telling Israeli journalists: "I came to the decision for reasons of conscience" because he could not sit in a government "with a party whose platform is full of racist characteristics".

Pines-Paz told Haáretz: "If Lieberman is the answer to the government's loss of direction after the second Lebanon war, the entire government should resign and let Lieberman and his friends — the Likud, National Religious Party and National Union — lead the country."

Lieberman, a former member of the right-wing Likud party, served as its director-general in 1993-96, also served as infrastructure minister in 2001-02 and as transport minister in 2003-04. He strongly opposed then-Likud PM Ariel Sharon's 2004 plan to unilaterally "disengage" from Gaza.

Instead, in May 2004, Lieberman proposed a plan in which the populations and territories of Jews and Arabs, including Israeli Arabs, would be "separated". According to the plan, only those Israeli Arabs who felt "a connection with the State of Israel" and were "completely loyal to it" would be allowed to remain. Otherwise they would be stripped of the Israeli citizenship and driven out of the country.

Sharon condemned Lieberman's plan, stating that Likud regarded "Israeli Arabs as part of the State of Israel". On June 4, 2004, as the disputes over the up-coming disengagement plan grew more intense, Sharon dismissed Lieberman from the cabinet.

Even prior to 2004, Lieberman had advocated driving out Arabs from the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). In 2002, he told Britain's Independent newspaper that the Israeli military should "destroy everything" in the OPT, including Palestinian commercial centres, petrol stations and banks.

In July 2002, he called for all Palestinian prisoners held by the Israeli occupation forces to be drowned in the Dead Sea, offering to provide the buses for their transportation.

On the day he was sworn into Olmert's cabinet, Lieberman's party withdrew, temporarily, a bill aimed at the Israeli Arab MPs. The bill, sponsored by Yisrael Beiteinu MP Esterina Tartman, would allow a majority of 80 MPs to expel an MP who they identify as "advocating armed resistance against Israel, racist incitement, or opposing the existence of Israel as a democracy".

Similar to a bill put forward by National Union MP Zevulen Orlev, Tartman's bill is believed to be aimed at Israeli Arab MPs who give critical speeches on Israel. Orlev's bill, which has already passed a first vote in the parliament, differs from Tartman's bill in that it refers the issue to the Supreme Court for a final vote.

The October 30 Jerusalem Post reported that "Labor MKs joined Likud, Balad, Hadash, and Meretz MKs in expressing outrage at what has commonly been called 'racist legislation'."

"This bill is very similar to a bill passed in the 1930s by the Reichstag in Nazi Germany where 95 Communist parliamentarians were expelled", the Post quoted Dov Kheinin, an MP for the leftist mixed Arab-Jewish Hadash party. "This is the type of bill a member of the new government wants to pass."

While some sections of the liberal left in Israel have compared Lieberman to Austria's Joerg Haider and France's Jean-Marie Le Pen, the difference between Lieberman and many mainstream Israeli politicians is very small. The positions held by Lieberman are strikingly similar to many of those held by both Olmert and Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu.

Like Lieberman, both Olmert and Netanyahu are keen to introduce policies that will continue to guarantee a demographic Jewish majority, at the expense of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship. And like Lieberman, both Olmert and Netanyahu advocates policies that seek to cleanse the region of as many Palestinians as possible.

The main difference between Olmert and Netanyahu on the one hand and Lieberman on the other is in the rhetoric they use to present their racist policies. While Lieberman openly takes about "transfer" and "expulsion" of Arabs, Olmert uses more coded pleasant-sounding words like "disengagement" and "convergence". The effect on the ground, however, is the same — the inexorable continuation of Zionist colonisation of Palestinian land.

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