As the Israeli elections demonstrated a clear move to the right within the Israeli political sphere, Paul Jay speaks to Daniel Levy of the New America Foundation to understand the impact this will have on the ground. Avigdor Liberman, leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel our Homeland) Party, has come in third in the elections. His campaign largely revolved around advocating that Israelis should be forced to swear a loyalty oath to the Jewish Israeli state, a policy many say discriminates against the large Israeli Arab population and hints on ethnic cleansing. Levy says, “Israel has to come to terms with what it means to have a large non-Jewish minority in a democratic state.” He continues to say that, “we’re approaching a moment of truth of whether Israel can prove itself, that it can live up to democratic ideals.” Levy argues that if, what he calls “The Lieberman Phenomenon,” takes sway of Israeli society, it will at least be brought to the surface where it can be openly opposed.


Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News and the final segment of this series of interviews with Daniel Levy. He’s the head of the Middle East task force for the New America Foundation. Thank you. So you just got back from Israel. Talk about the mood there. And one of the things I think that was quite striking is how public the conversation seems to have gotten about making Palestinian-Israelis swear allegiance to the Jewish state or they’re going to lose their right to vote, a disenfranchisement or a banning of Palestinian-Arab parties. The dialog there seems to be getting far to the right. And is there much difference between the different parties? ‘Cause we seem to be hearing parts of this argument from almost all the leaders.

DANIEL LEVY, NEW AMERICA FOUNDATION: I mean, the most stunning, striking phenomenon in this election was the party of Mr. Avigdor Lieberman, the Yisrael Beiteinu, Israel Homeland Party went from 11 to 15 seats. But it was the campaign that they ran that became—. You know, there’s always one slogan that is remembered from election campaigns, and I think from this election campaign in Israel it was the “no loyalty, no citizenship.” And the key theme around which the Lieberman campaign focused was—it said Israeli-Arab citizens were suspicious. You’ve got a question mark indelibly marked on your forehead: “You swear an oath of loyalty to the Jewish state or we’ll rescind your citizenship.” I don’t think this will pass as legislation. There’s been attempts to pass it before as legislation, but it became a centerpiece of the discourse. And rather than what we’ve seen in Europe, where you’ve had—. Mr. Lieberman is no more extreme than your classical anti-immigrant, populist, xenophobic, militant ethnic nationalist. He doesn’t have to be—those kind of people are quite extreme enough. What you saw in Europe, though, when you had the Front National in France, when you had the Vlaams Blok in Belgium, when you had the Swiss [People’s] Party of Mr. Blocher, etcetera, etcetera, is that mainstream political parties came together and they tended most of the time, whether in national or municipal elections, to say, “We don’t cross this line. There’s a cordon sanitaire. We don’t work with you.” The thing that was worrying and ugly in this election in Israel was the opposite happened: Netanyahu, Livni, the different parties are today falling over themselves who can ingratiate themselves more with Mr. Lieberman. Now, does it say something rotten about Israel’s political and electoral system? Perhaps. Does it really ask a question about Israel’s values? This is the danger. Israel has defined itself as a Jewish and democratic state. To the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, it’s heavy on the former, on the Jewish, and it’s rather light on the democratic. When the peace camp, when Labor, etcetera, was pushing for a peace process, when Kadima was pushing for a peace process and they came to the Israeli public, their message was: you have to support de-occupation and Palestinian statehood (even though it never happened, but when they tried to get support for the idea), because this is the way to keep Israel demographically Jewish. Now, maybe that was the only way to convince the Jewish public, but it means that there is an entrenched narrative in Israel today. And the challenge for Israel, if it wants to maintain this sense of being a democracy, is really how do you make a more inclusive Israel. I grew up in England, where the flag was the cross, where we sang “God Save the Queen” in our anthem, where my school holidays were Christian holidays, where there’s a direct link between the Church of England and the state, and I’m saying all those things can happen in Israel in a non-offensive way only if Israel creates a more inclusive definition of what is Israeli.

JAY: But it seems to be heading in the other direction. And is the grand plan there some kind of weak bantustan Palestinian state and some form of expulsion of Palestinian-Israelis into this state? And is that the grand plan for keeping the state Jewish?

LEVY: You know, I find it difficult to talk in terms of grand plans, because you have in Israel a number of political streams. It is a democracy. You have—there was an attempt to ban some of the Arab political parties from running. That attempt was nipped in the bud by the Supreme Court. So they are represented in the Knesset. So I don’t think there’s a grand plan. Yes, there are actors in the Israeli political establishment for whom the idea of a—and I’ve been told this by an MK, by a member of the parliament—a smaller but cleaner, ethnically cleaner Israel is the plan. Do land swaps, where more of the Arab-Palestinian Israelis are part of the Palestinian state, or move them into the Palestinian state. Israel has to come to terms with—I would argue that Israel has to come to terms with what it means to have a large, non-Jewish minority in a democratic state. But, yes, there is a discourse in Israel. And I think we’re approaching a moment of truth here. We’re approaching a moment of truth whether Israel can prove itself, that it can live up to democratic ideals. And I think the Lieberman phenomenon is a horrible phenomenon, but it’s now floated to the surface, and it may be that that’s the direction that Israeli politics goes in. It becomes more of an ethnocracy, rather than a democracy. It may just be that by raising these issues front and center there is finally a push back, there is finally—. In France there was—.

JAY: And what will be the US position towards this kind of drift if there is a move in this kind of ethnic-cleansing direction?

LEVY: Well, I think the entire international community will—. You know, when you have Lieberman in the government, when you have Kahanism of the Kahanist movement essentially inside the—so entrenched now [inaudible]

JAY: A movement [inaudible] more or less [inaudible] for awhile.

LEVY: It was illegal, and it’s a terrorist group, registered as such in America. That hasn’t happened to Lieberman’s party. I think the international community will have to say, you know, “What kind of a standard are we going to apply here?” It will be very difficult. It will be very difficult for Jewish communities around the world, how they relate to this phenomenon. Is it going to be a wake-up call? Or is it going to get worse? I think the American response will be to work with whatever government is elected in Israel, and that should have been their response on the Palestinian side, of course. That wasn’t. But I think that will be the response on the Israeli side. However, as policies are developed, and if Lieberman—and it’s not clear that he will, but if he does have more and more influence, those who today say this is resembling a bit too much an apartheid system will gain more and more traction for that argument, and many people will say if it looks like a duck and quacks like duck—. And this is the challenge that Israel faces.

JAY: Thank you very much.

LEVY: Thank you, Paul.

JAY: Thanks for joining us on The Real News Network.

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Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


Daniel Levy

Daniel Levy Daniel Levy is a Senior Research Fellow and Director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation and a Senior Fellow and Director of the Prospects for Peace Initiative at The Century Foundation. He serves as editor of The Middle East Channel, an online initiative of Foreign Policy Magazine and the Project on Middle East Political Science at George Washington University together with NAF’s Middle East Task Force. The site has rapidly become the premiere destination for informed online discussion of the Middle East.

During the Barak Government of 1999-2001, Levy worked in the Israeli Prime Minister's Office as special adviser and head of Jerusalem Affairs, following which Mr. Levy worked as senior policy adviser to then Israeli Minister of Justice, Yossi Beilin. In this capacity he was responsible for coordinating policy on various issues including peace negotiations, civil and human rights, and the Palestinian minority in Israel. Mr. Levy was a member of the official Israeli delegation to the Taba negotiations with the Palestinians in January 2001, and previously served on the Israeli negotiating team to the "Oslo B"" Agreement from May to September 1995