Lieberman’s return deepens gap between Palestinians and Israelis
Ramallah - Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s appointment of far-right politician Avigdor Lieberman as Defence minister is likely to scupper international efforts to restart peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
The Defence Ministry is the most influential government department in Israel. It oversees the occupation of the West Bank and enforces the siege on the Gaza Strip. Until 1967, the general rule was that the prime minister was also the defence minister.
Lieberman, born in 1958 in the Soviet Union, lives in an illegal Israeli West Bank settlement and has frequently called for the overthrow of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the beheading and drowning of Palestinian prisoners, the destruction of the West Bank and a war against Gaza.
Netanyahu’s decision is seen as a blow to a French peace initiative, a clear message that Israel is more interested in settlement expansion and land confiscation and an indication of a possible broader government swing to the right.
Political analyst Ismat Mansour said Netanyahu made his stance clear when he chose the right-wing nationalist Lieberman over the centre-left social democrat Isaac Herzog.
Palestinians and Israelis alike have described Netanyahu’s new coalition, which is largely made up of ultra-nationalist and ultra-religious parties, as the most right-wing in Israel’s history.
The agreement with Lieberman brought more stability to Netanyahu’s government, taking it from a razor-thin majority of 61 members in the 120-seat parliament, to 66 seats.
Mansour said that with right-wing Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett and Lieberman in the same coalition “there will never be a practical step towards peace or a chance that Israel makes any concessions regarding the issue of Jerusalem or right of return”.
At a time when the Palestinian leadership, along with around 20 countries, including Arab nations, has expressed support for the French peace initiative to begin multilateral negotiations, the appointment is a setback for peace efforts.
While Mansour said Lieberman’s views would likely not influence an already far-right policy, Aida Touma, an Arab member of the Israeli parliament, said the appointment would have grave consequences on Arabs in Israel, who make up about 20% of the population.
“Lieberman is joining an already fascist government and this addition shall only reinforce a general trend to pass more racist laws,” she said.
Palestinians, including officials, expressed dismay regarding Lieberman’s appointment, reading it as a message from Netanyahu against peace, negotiations, against ending the occupation of the West Bank and the siege of Gaza and, most importantly, against the French peace initiative.
But political analyst Adel Shadeed said Lieberman’s appointment would probably have more of an effect on the Israeli society than on the deteriorating situation in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip or on peace efforts.
Top military and security officers are likely to tame Lieberman’s views on policy towards the West Bank and Gaza, he said.
“Lieberman’s appointment is bound to deepen the gap between Palestinians in Israel and the Jewish community. It will increase the targeting and oppression of Arabs as well as dampen the role of the left, which generally supports a two-state solution,” said Shadeed.
Lieberman recently described Israeli human rights groups known for documenting abuse against Palestinians as “traitors”. “The left-leaning groups were funded by the same people who finance Hamas,” he said.
“Being described as a leftist is increasingly becoming an insult in Israel and the army that once served Israel will now serve the settlers and Judea and Samaria instead,” said Shadeed, referring to the biblical names of the West Bank and Gaza used by hard-line Israelis.
Despite predictions of a shift towards a more radical discourse in Israel, many Palestinian and Israeli political experts say there is no need to worry over Lieberman’s presence in such a highly critical position.
Amos Harel, the military affairs analyst of the English-language newspaper Haaretz, said once Lieberman assumes duties, he will become more pragmatic and less polarising.
“When you sit in the chair and consider the consequences of your decisions, things look different,” the New York Times quoted him as saying.
However, concerns remain regarding Lieberman’s effect on the Israeli military’s conduct in the West Bank and what is considered ethical practice, such as an Israeli soldier’s killing of an unarmed and injured Palestinian man in Hebron.
Former Defence minister Moshe Ya’alon and top generals strongly condemned the Israeli sergeant’s conduct but Lieberman showed up at the court to express support.
Shadeed said the message Palestinians need to read is that Netanyahu’s right-wing government has become stronger and Israeli society is supporting a shift towards the right.