Israel's Most Unlikely Dove

Article Summary
Ultra-nationalist Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman spoke firmly against a strike on Iran. The real danger comes from seemingly rational and moderate leaders like Netanyahu and Barak, writes Aviad Kleinberg. Isreal avoids thinking about the heavy cost of an Israeli attack on Iran, he says. "We, in Israel, do not like talking about nightmares."

"If, God forbid, a war with Iran breaks out, it will be a nightmare. And we will all be in it, including the Persian Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia. No one will remain unscathed. We have to do everything we can to urge the international community to assume responsibility and take action to stop the Iranians … The State of Israel keeps all options open. However, we do believe that if we make the required effort and present a unified international front, we may yet talk the Iranians into giving up their nuclear aspirations … Let me make it clear: The right way to prevent [an all-out flare-up] is to present a solid unified front of the international community."

Who, do you think, has said these rational and sensible words? Try your guess. Was it Israeli opposition leader and head of the centrist, liberal Kadima party Tzipi Livni? Or could it rather have been longtime member of the rightist Likud party and Israeli Minister of Intelligence and Atomic Energy Dan Meridor? Or perhaps ex-Mossad chief Meir Dagan, who is known for his outspoken opposition to attacking Iran under the present circumstances?

Believe it or not, the statement was made by none other than the far-right leader of the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. And it was not in foreign ears that these words were said. Rather, Lieberman said them in an interview to the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth Sunday, March 18, while on an official visit to China. True, his statement did not make it to the headlines, but it was published — if not on the front page, then on page 6, next to the report on the sanctioned Iran banks being cut off from the international bank-transfer system SWIFT. Surprisingly enough, or maybe not quite so surprisingly, there has been no echo in the media of his unexpected statement.

I have been looking for comments on the Web, but found none. "If, God forbid, a war with Iran breaks out, it will be a nightmare" Why should such a statement be so astonishing? Well, the answer is quite clear. Lieberman's public image presents him as a warmongering fascist. However, it is a problematic image.

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No one will suspect me of feeling any affection for Lieberman. The Israeli Foreign Minister is a self-declared nationalist holding chauvinistic and ethnocentric views. Like other nationalists anywhere in the world, he does not believe in the principle of equality before the law, certainly not when it comes to the Arab citizens of Israel. However, Lieberman is not the most extreme of extremists in Israeli society, and not even in the Israeli parliament. The most passionate anti-democratic activists are to be found elsewhere — in the Likud, HaBayit HaLeumi (an organization set up to stop former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan) and, not least, even in centrist, liberal Kadima.

As to war mongering, on this measure too, Lieberman has serious competition. There are quite a number of public figures waiting eagerly in line ahead of him on the way to war. The most dangerous players are those at the heart of the consensus — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli Defense Minister and Chairman of the "centrist, Zionist and democratic" Haazma'ut faction Ehud Barak (no longer the stand-offish snob from the prestigious Akirov Towers in Tel Aviv. If you are looking for a narrow-minded view of the world, drawing on the deep-rooted paranoia of the self-professed victim, rushing to declare war so as to ward off a holocaust (never less than that), Benjamin Netanyahu is your man. If you are seeking ever more inflated defense budgets, at the expense of everything else, you must be looking for Barak. It is not by chance that the two work so nicely together.

However, the fact that Lieberman is not the exception in the Israeli discourse, and not even its most extremist spokesman, is played down. He conveniently serves us in the role of "Ivan the Terrible" (a simile that is more than a bit racist), the source of all our troubles. If only we could get rid of that Soviet-born Russian, we would have a much more enlightened country. It is quite easy to loathe Lieberman. He is not really one of us. Unfortunately, reality is more complex than that. If only Lieberman had been the exception in Israel. Alas, he is not.

The disregard for Lieberman's warning against war, in a society where the decision makers avoid any mention of the heavy cost of an Israeli attack on Iran, is thus not at all surprising. For one thing, such a warning does not fit our image of Lieberman — and whatever does not fit our image does not exist. What's more, in the public discourse irresponsibly cheered on by Netanyahu and Barak, the two like-thinking ex-fighters of the IDF special elite force Sayeret Matkal, we are uncomfortable about the issue of cost and would rather not hear about it nor discuss it — and this is much more dangerous.

At the most, there will be 500 dead, the defense minister has assured us. True, he has never excelled at forecasting the future, but this has never prevented him from gaining our trust.

A nightmare, you say? We, in Israel, do not like talking about nightmares. We would rather realize them first and then establish an investigation committee.

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Found in: war, israel, iran
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