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Avigdor Lieberman and Israel's Arabs: A Question of Values

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The day after the United Nations created the state of Israel, the country's first president, Chaim Weizmann, found time to work on his memoir, "Trial and Error." In it, he issued a warning to the Israeli leaders of today: "I am certain that the world will judge the Jewish state by what it will do with the Arabs." It was Nov. 30, 1947.

Weizmann was an astonishingly accomplished man -- chemist, diplomat, statesman -- but maybe his most uncanny talent was that of seer. Peering into the future, he glimpsed the ugly turn Israeli politics has recently taken and how it is now acceptable to talk in repulsive ways about the country's 1.3 million Arabs. "There must not be one law for the Jew and another for the Arabs," he wrote.

Weizmann's admonition may not be known to Avigdor Lieberman, an immigrant from the former Soviet republic of Moldova and now one of Israel's most important political leaders. Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu party placed third in the recent election, meaning he will almost certainly be part of the next government. Lieberman is often called a "nationalist." Maybe so, but he is also an anti-Arab demagogue.

The Arabs of Lieberman's antipathy are not Israel's traditional enemies -- either in Gaza, the West Bank or elsewhere in the Middle East. He focuses instead on the Arabs of Israel proper, about 20 percent of the population. They are his fellow citizens, some of them of dubious loyalty, it is true, and most of them with genuine grievances, it is also true. In essence, Lieberman wants to swap them for Jewish settlers now living provocatively in the occupied West Bank. It's half a good idea.

But it is the other half -- the one that would rid Israel of its Arabs -- that has propelled Lieberman to the front rank of Israeli politicians. The Israeli electorate, feeling besieged, has moved to the right. The centrist Kadima Party narrowly won the election, but it is the right that gained strength overall, and now Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu, not Kadima's Tzipi Livni, is trying to form a government. Lieberman ought not to be part of it.

The issue of Israel's Arabs is complicated. They are not Jews, yet they are expected to be loyal to a Jewish state. They are Arabs, yet they are expected to stand by while their fellow Arabs are pounded -- as in Gaza -- by Israeli guns.

Yet, in an odd way, Israel's Arabs ought to represent the best of Israel. They can vote. They hold seats in parliament. They have more civil rights in Israel than they would in any Arab nation. They ought to be a point of pride. Their civil liberties, their standard of living, their political participation ought to show the world what sort of country Israel is. That's what Weizmann wanted.

Weizmann was no dreamer. His century -- the 20th -- was fast becoming the bloodiest in history. The world was just completing an orgy of genocide, ethnic cleansing and population transfers -- Greeks for Turks and Turks for Greeks, Germans for Poles and Poles for Germans, a decades-long brawl culminating in the Holocaust and followed by the expulsion of millions of ethnic Germans from all over Eastern Europe. Pakistan and India were created in a similar manner -- a population swap of many millions of people. This was the way things were once done.

Israel, too, engaged some in ethnic cleansing -- or why else all those Palestinian refugees? But the attempt was both chaotic and, as we can see, not wholly successful. More important, the concept was anathema to important members of the Zionist establishment such as Weizmann. The way of the world -- eliminating ethnic minorities -- would not be practiced by the very ethnic minority that had suffered the most.

It is clear that the world has grown weary of Israel. Its problems seem intractable, insoluble. Its solicitous critics suggest it imbibe the hemlock of proportionality -- a missile for a missile, a rocket for a rocket. To do otherwise amounts to "state terrorism," in the felicitous phrase of Bill Moyers. It turns out winning isn't everything; losing gracefully is.

Lieberman's rhetoric has excited some concern in the American Jewish community, but, as usual, most of the leaders are mum. They ought to open their Weizmann, Page 461 to be precise, and see what Israel's founding fathers had in mind. Israel can swap land for peace, but not Arab for Jew. That would leave an empty space -- not only where the Arabs once were, but where Israel once kept its values.

cohenr@washpost.com


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