This week Israel’s Foreign Minister began signalling he is interested in dragging the nation into early elections. These maneuvers came at the peak of Liberman’s campaign to rebrand himself as a moderate and pragmatic leader. To discuss what an Israel under his leadership may look like, The Real News’ Israel/Palestine Correspondent speaks with Political Economist Shir Hever in the first of a series of conversations on Israeli politics and the occupation. They are joined by author and commentator Michel Warschawski.
LIA TARACHANSKY, ISRAEL-PALESTINE CORRESPONDENT: Hello and welcome. I’m Lia Tarachansky.
SHIR HEVER, POLITICAL ECONOMIST AND ANALYST: And I’m Shir Hever.
TARACHANSKY: And we’re here today in conversation about Israeli politics. And this particular one is going to focus on the Israeli foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman.
HEVER: Avigdor Lieberman is a very interesting Israeli politician and one of the more extreme right-wing signifiers in Israeli politics. He’s recently changed his tone somewhat and claims that he has chosen a more moderate position. And that comes at a very interesting time, when Israel is under a lot of international pressure regarding the peace process and the growing boycott movement.
So I think it might be worthwhile to look a little bit deeper into who Avigdor Lieberman is, what he represents in Israeli politics, and what kind of ideas he has for the future of Israel politics as well.
AVIGDOR LIEBERMAN, ISRAELI FOREIGN MINISTER: As a guiding principle for final status agreement must not be [incompr.] peace, but, rather, exchange for populated territory. Let me be very clear. I’m not speaking about moving populations, but rather about moving borders to better reflect demographic realities.
LIEBERMAN: Postpone the political solution for at least for a decade [snip] less international involvement and overdoing and overspeaking on the highest level, because it’s create a lot of expectations, and after the expectations you have frustration, and it will lead to the violence and clashes.
TARACHANSKY: In contrast, this is a speech he delivered recently, followed by a Channel 2 interview.
LIEBERMAN (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): John Kerry is a friend of Israel, a true friend, and we have nothing to gain from turning friends into enemies. The fact that we don’t agree on everything is not a secret.
INTERVIEWER (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): Should we announce a revolution here?
LIEBERMAN: Depends on what kind of revolution.
INTERVIEWER: Before our eyes a new Avigdor Lieberman was born.
LIEBERMAN: I think the revolution is in how you cover Avigdor Lieberman, and not in him.
INTERVIEWER: But it’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it. You’re polite. You extend a hand to the Americans. You’re the responsible adult. You don’t burn bridges anymore or start fires in the Middle East.
LIEBERMAN: First of all, I admit that maybe at my age my tone changed somewhat. I don’t have the same energy as when I was younger. But I think that my essence is the same essence.
TARACHANSKY: The seeming change in Lieberman’s tone signifies that this is a sort of strategy change here in the way that he’s approaching the public.
HEVER: What I think is interesting when we talk about Lieberman is how such a man, who does not come from the normal Israeli political elites–he is not from a very wealthy family, or not very well connected prior to his entry into politics–rose to such a very high rank and such a very important role.
I think that has a lot to do with the fact that he has a lot of public support. In his political party, there are a lot of people who are willing to volunteer and to work very hard to get him elected and to get information about him across to the general public. And as a result, he was able to form one of the larger parties in Israel, and influential party as well.
TARACHANSKY: And I think as soon as he was elected, he came out shooting very quickly against the prime minister, establishing himself as an actual political rival, so much so that in the last elections, earlier in 2013, Netanyahu basically had to extend to him a political union, knowing that if they don’t, they might actually split a lot of the votes and lose power.
HEVER: Yeah. And this is something that the Likud Party, Netanyahu’s party, didn’t like at all, because what Netanyahu did was actually make sure that Yisrael Beiteinu, the party of Lieberman, will receive a predetermined size of the seat, or predetermined number of seats in Parliament, even if the proportion of people who support that party and Likud cannot really be known, because people will vote with just one note for the two parties together. And then, after the elections, the parties can split again.
Now, this really shows the kind of weakness that Netanyahu has, because his party is somewhat semi-democratic, while Lieberman established a purely non-democratic party. Yisrael Beiteinu is a party in which Lieberman himself has the authority to decide who gets in and who gets out.
And you would think this is a kind of a disadvantage for Lieberman, because being a sort of head of such a dictatorial party maybe will not draw a lot of voters. But, actually, in the recent years, in which the tension of the definition of Israel as a Jewish democratic state has become stronger and stronger and a growing number of people are saying, well, actually, Jewish is more important than democratic, democracy’s not that important for us, then Lieberman’s strongman attitude is actually gathering more support for him.
TARACHANSKY: The first time that he was elected, I think that he came out very strongly. His party passed a whole onslaught of laws, laws that by many definitions are antidemocratic, and many of the members of his party who were in Parliament have become very famous for very racist and very antidemocratic statements.
Now, in the elections in 2013, he selectively, sort of with–almost with a pincette, removed these people out of his party, portraying that he is now intending to form a much more moderate voice.
HEVER: Many of these laws, even those among those who have passed, are not being enforced, and many of these laws have not passed, partially also because of international pressure. And that kind of posturing appeals to a large part of the Israeli public, who are saying, well, these politicians are really not afraid, they don’t care about international opinion, and they’re willing to say what we are thinking.
TARACHANSKY: Now, some say that Lieberman is positioning himself now for the next elections. Last week we sat with Michel Warschawski in Jerusalem, who’s a frequent commentator on The Real News Network. He’s an author and a journalist as well. And he was advancing the point that Lieberman is now looking at a political landscape that is post-Netanyahu. Let’s take a look at that clip.
MICHEL WARSCHAWSKI, JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): He knows Netanyahu’s weakness inside the Likud Party. Unlike others, he’s not afraid of Netanyahu and he’s post-Netanyahu. That’s what he’s working on. And for that he needs to change his image abroad to a considerate politician who extends a hand to the Americans, who’s not who he was when he was little–which doesn’t say what he is, but that’s the image he’s trying to sell now. And he’ll succeed.
INTERVIEWER: Why are you so sure?
WARSCHAWSKI: Because he’s not dependent on political struggles. He’s a dictator. He’s really a dictator. He leads his politics on his own. He’s not dependent on party democracy. He’s not dependent on the support of this or that sector, like Netanyahu or what was once the Kadima Party or what’s today the Labor Party. That’s not his method. He’s building a personality above the political game.
TARACHANSKY: Now, a lot of this raises questions about whether Lieberman, as Warschawski says, is actually the real pragmatist, considering that he doesn’t have any political ideology or party that he’s accountable to. He can basically just bulldozer forward with that ideology.
HEVER: Lieberman has reshuffled the political sphere in Israel, because there was a sort of a traditional debate between left and right, Zionist left and Zionist right, in Israel, where they were saying, the Zionist right, we should get as much territory as possible, the Zionist left saying, it’s more important to keep the Jewish majority, and that means compromising on territory.
Lieberman took this position of the Zionist left–he does call for territorial compromise–but framed it in the very extreme right way and actually exposed that there is really no ideological difference between the Zionist right and the Zionist left. It’s really a question about strategy and pragmatism.
TARACHANSKY: I think, while he stirred up a lot of scandal in Western nations, he also sees the region in a very sober way, at least as far as Israel’s geopolitical struggle with Iran goes. And during his first four years as the foreign minister, he has tightened Israeli relations with the Caucasus and with Russia, understanding that these are the areas where Iran could potentially have the most political and economic foothold, much more than Israel does.
HEVER: Yeah. And Lieberman has also tried to, as foreign minister, to change the focus of Israel’s foreign relations from Israel’s traditional closest allies, which is North America and Europe, Central and Western Europe, and to shift the focus into, well, Eastern Europe and Russia, but also Latin America and Africa.
TARACHANSKY: So I guess the real question that arises now is: if Lieberman, who has been maneuvering the Israeli political landscape so well all these years, if he’s indeed positioning himself to be the next prime minister, what would Israel look like under his leadership?
HEVER: Even though it is feasible that Lieberman will gain political power in Israel and will gain political leadership, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he will have the power to implement all of these ideas, because we have to remember Israel is a state of minorities. There is not one single group in Israel which has the majority. And even questions about what does it mean to be Jewish are questions that are not in consensus. That means–.
TARACHANSKY: But the only group of–I think the only group in Israel that Lieberman has managed to alienate has been the Orthodox community.
HEVER: Well, there is another exception, and the other exception is the economic elites in Israel, because the economic elites in Israel, even if maybe on an ideological level they see eye-to-eye with him, they are also very sensitive to Israel’s relations with Israel’s main trading partner, which are Europe and North America.
TARACHANSKY: Thank you for watching The Real News.
HEVER: We’ll continue this in future installments of our conversations with Shir Hever.
TARACHANSKY: And Lia Tarachansky.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.