Updated (February 5)
by James M. Wall
Obama envoy George Mitchell faces two big problems in his effort to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
Because the problems are intimately connected they will have a major impact on the Israeli Knesset election, February 10.
The first problem involves the initial banning of two major Arab political parties, Balad and the United Arab List-Ta’al (UAL-T), from taking part in the election.
The reason for the banning? Party members, all of whom are Israeli citizens, had openly protested the war in Gaza.
Israel’s Election Commission voted on January 10 to ban the two Arab parties from the February 10 election.
After the two parties protested, on January 21 Israel’s High Court of Justice restored them to the ballot.
This legal victory, however, will not reverse a growing trend in Israel politics: A mood of intolerance toward its own Arab citizens.
Avigdon Lieberman’s right wing party, Israel Beiteinu (Israel is our Home) was behind the move to ban the two parties. Recent polls reveal that Lieberman’s party is growing stronger.
After the initial Election Commission ban of the two parties, the Kadima party, a more moderate party in the race, gave its endorsement to the ban, declaring that because “Balad rejects the idea of an Israeli state, it can therefore not take part in the 18th Knesset.”
“The goals of Hamas and Balad are the same: to destroy Israel,” said Yisrael Beiteinu Chairman MK Avigdor Lieberman. “The difference between them is that the Hamas is outside of Israel, in Gaza, whereas Balad is not only within Israel, but sits in its parliament.”
Lieberman’s growing power in Israeli politics comes from the overwhelming support Israeli voters gave to the Gaza invasion. When their soldiers are in the field, voters tend to favor militant leaders.
IsraelForum.com reports that a poll taken by Panels for the Knesset Channel found that Israel Beiteinu is currently projected to run third in the election, with 15 seats, just ahead of Barak’s Labor Party, which is projected to win 14 seats. A second poll reported that Israel Beiteinu could win as many as 19 seats.
The two leading parties continue to be Bibi Netanyahu’s Likud, with 30 projected seats and Tzipi Livni’s Kadima, with 24. Netayahu is a former prime minister; Livni is the current prime minister.
If Avigdon Lieberman’s party does run third in the race, he will be in an even stronger position to dictate a militant policy in the new government. This could lead to a harder line against Gaza and an increased intolerance toward Israel’s Arab citizens.
In 2006 Lieberman became a deputy prime minister and Minister of Strategic Affairs in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s cabinet. He left the cabinet in January, 2008 when his party withdrew from the coalition in protest over Israel’s negotiations with the Palestinian National Authority.
Lieberman, 51, is married with three children. His family lives in a West Bank Israeli settlement, Nokdim, a few miles from Bethlehem.
Electronicintifada.net reports that Lieberman, whose major strength comes from Russian immigrants, came to Israel from Moldova at the age of 20. His public rhetoric and official statemens have led to charges that he is a “racist”. According to electronicintifada.net:
In May 2004, Lieberman proposed a plan that called for the transfer of Israeli territory with Palestinian populations to the Palestinian Authority. Likewise, Israel would annex the major Jewish settlement blocs on the Palestinian West Bank.
If applied, his plan would strip roughly one-third of Israel’s Palestinian citizens of their citizenship. A “loyalty test” would be applied to those who desired to remain in Israel.
This plan to trade territory with the Palestinian Authority is a revision of Lieberman’s earlier calls for the forcible transfer of Palestinian citizens of Israel from their land. Lieberman stated in April 2002 that there was “nothing undemocratic about transfer.”
Also in May 2004, he said that 90 percent of Israel’s 1.2 million Palestinian citizens would “have to find a new Arab entity” in which to live beyond Israel’s borders. “They have no place here. They can take their bundles and get lost.”
When the Arab political parties were initially banned from the February 10 election, antiwar.com reported:
The Arab parties earned the ire of the most hawkish elements in the Israeli government by publicly opposing the ongoing war in the Gaza Strip. Balad likewise made enemies by explicitly calling for equal rights for all citizens of Israel, regardless of national or ethnic identity, which the ruling Kadima Party said would “undermine Israel’s identity as a Jewish state.”
Israel’s Election Commission’s initial decision to ban the two Arab parties would have prevented more than half of the current Arab members of Israel’s Parliament from running for reelection.
Azmi Bishara, a former chairman of the Balad (Arabic for country) party, was a popular Arab member of the Knesset who often welcomed both religious and secular foreign visitors to his office.
He was forced to give up his Knesset seat and leave Israel after defense officials tried to link him to conversations with Hezbollah officials.
In September, 2008, Israel’s High Court of Justice ruled against an effort by members of Lieberman’s party and the National Religious Party to revoke Bishara’s Knesset pension. No charges have been filed against Bishara.
Israel prides itself as “the only democracy in the Middle East”. George Mitchell should remind Israel that democracies do not ban political parties for racist reasons. Of course, as the US knows too well, democracies do sometimes elect racists to public office. Not much George Mitchell can do about that.
But Mitchell can remind Israeli officials that racist politicians should not dictate public policy in a democracy which, by definition, is built on equal rights for all citizens.