“The end of democracy” trumpeted the headlines.
5 Prime Ministers in 6 years and half the time without an election!
Oh hang on, that’s Australia.
Israel. Same Prime Minister consistently since 2009, one who has been democratically elected and re-elected by the people, but who goes through a clumsy somewhat farcical exercise to expand his coalition and this is supposed to signal an end to democracy and morality in Israel.
Purim seems such a long time ago now and yet the Purim spiel continues.
We went to bed last week expecting a Netanyahu/Herzog government and woke up with a Netanyahu/Lieberman one in the making.
Herzog himself, probably one of the main casualties of this spiel, understood only too well just where he had to position his party to effect real change.
This may now be left to Yair Lapid, also in opposition, but who looks stronger and stronger in opinion polls for an election still sometime into the distance.
Lapid knows how to sound hawkish and yet be willing to make concessions at the same time.
The lead up to the Netanyahu/Herzog floated arrangements was very interesting and potentially game changing and came from outside of Israel.
The Paris led talks that Israel is very uncomfortable about as they effectively guarantee the Palestinians a state without have to agree to anything at all, were postponed as US Secretary of State John Kerry was conveniently “unable to attend due to a calendar clash”.
President El Sisi of Egypt then made a quite remarkable statement suggesting the Arab world amend the Saudi initiative of 2002, without saying exactly how, but offering to host a summit in Egypt with Israel and the Palestinians and an Israeli unity government looked a given, arising from this development.
It is worth remembering that Netanyahu has been holding a few ministries in this government since election day for Herzog and his party as he tried enticing them into the coalition over the past 14 months.
Moreover, it should be noted that even if/after Lieberman joins, Bibi is still holding the Foreign Ministry for Herzog in the hope he will yet enter the government.
Knesset members of Herzog’s own party, approximately half, threatened to not join Herzog in government and elements of Netanyahu’s Likud were not happy with the price Bibi is reported to have agreed to with Herzog and they conducted second channel talks with Lieberman.
So overnight Herzog could not deliver, Netanyahu was hamstrung by those within his own party who do not trust his “right wing” credentials and the deal was on with Lieberman.
And the sacrificial lamb was Defence Minister Moshe “Boogie” Ya’alon.
Bibi has succeeded in broadening his coalition slightly, but he has brought in one of his biggest critics, Lieberman, to whom he has also given the Defence Ministry.
There is no issue of democracy here, the real question is whether Israel’s security loses anything by the departure of Ya’alon and his replacement with Lieberman.
Although many will be reluctant to accept this, in terms of some important general policies, Lieberman is actually a sort of rougher and cruder version of the more polished Lapid. There are of course major differences.
But in essence both talk tough but are pragmatic; see land in terms of security rather than history; demography rather than geography; a Palestinian State as part of the solution; and have a similar civil rights agenda on matters of religion and state.
Lieberman has served as a minister in Netanyahu governments before and some will point to a few of his less responsible statements.
Others however may recall that he worked quite well with John Kerry and has often stated his view that Israel must itself provide initiatives or else face imposed solutions from Israeli’s allies.
As Foreign Minister in 2014 Lieberman said:
“We cannot ignore the effort and the substance of the positions that Kerry brought with him on security arrangements, also the issue of a Jewish state and on other issues. It must be understood that any other offer from the international community will be much less comfortable for us. Kerry is worthy of all the appreciation from us.”
During a visit to the UK Lieberman issued a joint statement with then British Foreign Secretary Hague, hailing John Kerry and praising the Israel-Palestinian negotiations Kerry was pushing as a “unique opportunity to end the conflict once and for all”.
Netanyahu, having disappointed the US by including Lieberman instead of Herzog, now finds, surprise surprise, that John Kerry is available again for the delayed Paris talks in June as some form of payback from the US.
It is instructive to recall the time in a previous government when President Obama was trying to meddle in internal Israeli matters by attempting to have Bibi throw Lieberman out of the government and to bring Livni in.
Yossi Beilin in an open piece to Obama, warned him to not try and do so. Beilin said that Lieberman was a pragmatist who would support a peace deal inside government, but would oppose one outside.
Lieberman is in fact on the record a number of times in wanting a Palestinian State, but where he is controversial is that he wants a population swap – without the actual movement of Arabs or Jews – but by drawing the map to annex the large Jewish settlement blocks to Israel and ceding some towns close to the Green Line with large Israeli Arab populations, to the new Palestinian State.
This proposal by Lieberman, yet to gain any prominent supporters, is aimed at shrinking Israel’s Arab minority.
And this is in line with Lieberman’s focus on demography rather than territory.
Of course the Israeli Arabs who might find themselves in a future Palestinian State under the Lieberman plan so vehemently oppose him because of a basic fact that the world continues to ignore – Israeli Arabs prefer to live in the Jewish State rather than in any Arab State.
Contrary to the headlines, Israeli Arabs know that Israel is a democracy; is a place where they have more civil rights than in any Arab country; and a place where not withstanding all of the problems, the rules of law and morality do apply.
In one of his last public statements as Foreign Minister, Lieberman said:
“When there is a dispute between the wholeness of the nation and the wholeness of the land, the wholeness of the nation is more important.”
This of course is almost the identical language used by Ben Gurion in his landmark address to the Knesset in 1949 when he outlined the basic principle that the State of Israel has followed ever since.
Ben Gurion said:
“faced with the choice of all the land without a Jewish state or a Jewish state without all the land, we chose a Jewish state without all the land.”
Now that Lieberman is back inside the government, the real question is which Lieberman will we see – the populist or the pragmatist?