Liberman’s skilled, cynical ‘Triangle’ maneuver
Proposal to trade Arab-inhabited area with the Palestinians may be expedient for Yisrael Beytenu, but it comes at a huge social cost
Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.
Yvette, as Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman’s closest friends and oldest enemies know him, is undeniably a skilled politician.
Dogged by scandal for nearly two decades, scorned and hated and feared by large swaths of the Israeli political and media elite, Liberman has emerged unscathed from all the barbs, accusations and obstacles thrown in his path.
“They tried everything — accusing him of corruption, calling him a thug, a racist — but nothing worked,” an old opponent of Liberman told The Times of Israel recently. “His voters,” noted the opponent, “keep voting for him.”
Liberman’s peculiar political genius, and its potential pitfalls, are on dramatic display of late in his decision to resuscitate an old proposal to include a major Arab Israeli population center in the Galilee, the “Triangle” of Arab towns adjacent to the Green Line, in any future land swap with a Palestinian state.
The plan has been variously called “racist,” a “transfer,” “ethnic cleansing” and other epithets. But these appellations have not quashed the idea. If anything, they are for Liberman the proof that it is striking home.
There should be little doubt that Liberman genuinely would like to see — and has advocated for many years — an Israeli-Palestinian border drawn along ethnic lines, rather than the seemingly arbitrary route of the old ceasefire with Jordan. But the plan has two purposes beyond Liberman’s straightforward hope that it succeeds. It is a rhetorical trap of breathtaking simplicity and power for Israeli Arab ideologues, and, he hopes, an opening shot in his party’s electoral rehabilitation.
To understand how completely the plan throws Israeli Arab discourse off-balance, one need only read the criticism leveled at it by Israeli Arabs themselves.
Afif Abu Much, a 32-year-old high-tech specialist from Baka al-Gharbiya, one of the Triangle towns slated to be swapped in Liberman’s plan, wrote angrily about the proposal earlier this week on the blog of Israeli political analyst Tal Schneider.
“Now, as a New Year ‘present,’ ” writes Abu Much, “they are going to move me and my family, deprive me of my citizenship (Do they have the legal right to do it?) and all that in order to keep the settlement blocs as part of Israel.”
The plan treats “Arab citizens” — this term is significant, as we shall see — like “a herd of sheep and not citizens of the state,” and amounts to “trafficking in human beings — citizens who happen to belong to a minority,” he charges.
One anti-Zionist blog picked up Abu Much’s complaint, calling Liberman’s plan “a scheme in which [Israel] would ‘transfer’ communities containing 300,000 Palestinian citizens to Palestinian sovereignty under any proposed peace plan so as to bolster the Jewish majority in Israel.”
Abu Much drives the point home with a parallel: “[J]ust imagine what would happen if one day the president of [the] United States, Barack Obama, were to propose to transfer sovereignty of certain parts of the US populated by the Jewish minority to another country — say, Cuba — as compensation for other regions and thereby reduce the number of Jewish citizens in the US.”
It is fascinating to note the misnomers and lacunae in these descriptions of the plan. “Transfer,” “move me and my family,” “herd of sheep” and “trafficking in human beings” are phrases that suggest Israeli Arabs will be physically relocated. Of course, that is not Liberman’s plan at all. He hopes to hand the territory itself to Palestine, with its residents remaining in their homes untouched. Sovereign Israel would shrink, and land that Fatah officials and Israeli Arab MKs continue to speak of as “occupied” would be liberated of Zionist occupation.
Abu Much complains that the plan is being inflicted on him because he “happen[s] to belong to a minority.” But, of course, the plan seeks to enable him to join a national majority: Arabic-speaking, Muslim, Palestinian.
Abu Much and the bloggers who took up his cause make much of the American comparison. But the comparison to America highlights their rhetorical plight rather than their supposed point. What, indeed, would we call Obama if the territory being handed to Cuba was adjacent to the island –say, south Florida — and was populated by millions of ethnic Cubans whose elected representatives in Congress have for decades railed against America’s illegal colonialist “occupation” of their formerly Spanish homeland? Would we call that American president a racist for such a withdrawal?
To suggest a less-confusing parallel, what would we make of a Catholic town in Northern Ireland that, when given the chance to rejoin the Irish Republic by having Ireland’s borders expanded till the town was within them, flatly rejected the idea as “racist”? Would it be racist to wonder why Irish Catholics preferred a “colonialist” British passport to their Irish liberation?
And there, precisely, lies the trap Liberman has neatly set: forcing Israeli Arabs, whether implicitly or explicitly, to reject the liberation of occupied Palestinian land.
Or, as he put it himself in a recent taunt on his Facebook page, “The Arabs of Wadi Ara have suddenly become adorers of Zion?”
Perhaps the strongest critique that can be leveled at the plan, the best indication of its underlying intentions, has to do with its timing.
Liberman has lost a significant portion of his electoral base over the past year. From 15 Knesset seats in the last Knesset, Yisrael Beytenu has just 11 in the current one, having run on a joint ticket with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud. A poll conducted by the business journal Globes in October 2013 gave it just six in a new election. In the nationwide municipal elections in October, the party fared very badly — in Ashdod, for example, dropping from five seats to just two on the city council. Ashdod, it is worth remembering, is the Israeli city with the highest number of Russian-speaking Israelis — the demographic from which Yisrael Beytenu still draws a significant majority of its support. A push to fully merge Yisrael Beytenu with the ruling Likud party was unceremoniously rebuffed by Likud activists in recent months.
Now Liberman faces the prospect of going to the next election sans the alliance with Likud and with a drastically reduced base of independent support.
That grim political reality has led to proposals meant to appeal to Yisrael Beytenu’s once reliable base: Russian-speaking immigrants who distrust Israel’s Orthodox Jewish religious establishment, and its Arab minority.
Thus one new bill, proposed just two weeks ago, seeks to disband the Orthodox religious councils that form the local power bases of Israel’s rabbinic establishment. It is the singlemost radical anti-rabbinate measure yet proposed by the party, and it surfaced at exactly the same time as the reanimation of Liberman’s Triangle plan.
Suffering at the polls, unwanted in his former political home in the Likud, Liberman has turned to the trusty adversarial politics that brought him so much support before.
Pride and prejudice
So Liberman’s plan has much to commend it from the narrow perspective of political benefit. It throws Israeli Arab political rhetoric off balance and rallies the base he needs to restore his electoral standing.
Yet for all that the cynical analyst may admire the cleverness and utility of the rhetorical trap, Liberman’s proposal, now being injected with utmost seriousness into the peace talks, may do damage in an unexpected quarter.
Too often ignored in the political palaver between Arab ideologues and Jewish populists is the remarkable fact that huge numbers of Israeli Arabs — probably more than half, in fact — are proud to be Israeli.
According to the 2012 Israeli Democracy Index, reflecting figures observed in every survey on the subject in recent years, fully 44.5 percent of Israel’s Arab citizens said they were “proud to be Israeli” — 14.1% “very proud,” 30.4% “quite proud.” In 2011, the numbers were even higher, with 52.8% of Arab respondents saying they were proud to be Israeli. Indeed, the annual index has fluctuated between 40 and roughly 53 percent throughout the last decade.
And it is not pride in the technicality of citizenship; they are proud of Israel itself.
“It should be noted that the expression the survey uses is not ‘Israeli citizen’ but ‘Israeli,’ ” noted historian and political commentator Prof. Alexander Yakobson in his own analysis of the 2012 survey’s findings. “In theory this should be the same thing, but, in fact, everyone living in Israel knows that both Jews and Arabs often use the term ‘Israeli’ as a synonym for an ‘Israeli Jew.’ ”
This pride, of course, is not the view expressed by Israeli Arab political leaders, who reject even the common parlance of “Israeli Arab.”
“To my knowledge,” explains Yakobson, “none of the leaders of the Arab public would adopt the label ‘Israeli,’ and many reject this term explicitly…. The acceptable alternative is not ‘Palestinian Israeli’ or ‘Israeli Palestinian’ but ‘Arab Palestinian citizen of Israel,’ or ‘(Arab) Palestinian in Israel.’ Under these conditions, the willingness of slightly less and sometimes slightly more than half of the Arab public to adopt the label ‘Israeli’ and express pride in it is of great significance.”
The figures borne out in the survey are remarkable. By large majorities, Arab Israelis believe Israel is a success story that’s here to stay. Three-quarters (75.9%) say it will remain at the cutting-edge of global high-tech in the next 15 years, 62.8% that it will be able to defend itself, 68.1% that it will retain its Jewish character, and 60.2% that they are “optimistic about the future of Israel,” with over half that number saying they are “very optimistic.”
And they have a faith in the country’s political and governmental institutions that rivals and exceeds that of Westerners in the most socioeconomically advanced nations. Fully 78% of Israel’s Arabs have confidence in the Supreme Court, six points higher than among Jews; 62.3% in the Israel Police; 51.3% in the Knesset, and 51.8% in the president. While that figure drops to 39.3% for the government (in the sense of the ministerial cabinet), it must be noted that even this is a stunningly high figure for a survey that was taken four years into the term of a right-wing government seen by many Arab citizens as opposed to Palestinian national rights.
The survey, again echoing a decade of findings from other surveys, even found levels of support for the IDF that would shock the casual observer. Fully 42.4% of Arabs said they have confidence in the IDF, 40.8% said they would not reduce its budget, and 16.8% said they would even increase it.
Which brings us back to Afif Abu Much’s angry letter. It is hardly remarkable that Abu Much accuses Liberman of racism, but it is very noteworthy that he does it so tangentially, noting briefly and obliquely that the proposal “contains a not-inconsiderable number of backward ideas.”
Instead, Abu Much spends 193 words discussing his taxes. It is a remarkable line of argument.
“Every month, about half my wages are taken by [the] state in taxes so that the prime minister [will] have the ability to buy ice cream for 10,000 shekels per annum, scented candles for 6,000, and allow himself to squander water to the tune of 80,000 shekels (not to mention the half-million spent on that bed for Thatcher’s funeral, etc.),” Abu Much complains.
His taxes are wasted on settlements rather than on his own community, he adds: “The taxes that I’m compelled to pay by law financed the construction of the settlements. Over the same period, my community and other Arab communities rarely saw anything in return for those taxes. All Israeli governments over the years have been meticulous in channeling the money to the settlements and not to those places which were in need of it.”
And the final stroke: This preference for settlements is actually harmful to Israel.
“Why should [we] be used as a bartering object for the purpose of keeping the settlements? In what way are people who live there superior to Arab citizens? On the contrary, nothing does more harm to Israel’s image than the settlements. It [is] not for nothing that Israeli law has not been applied there and the place is under military rule. Have you ever heard an American or European leader attack or condemn Israel because of the Arab communities in the Triangle, the Galilee, or the Negev?”
One would be forgiven for wondering what the prime minister’s spending habits, governmental neglect of Arab towns or the criticism leveled at Israel by Western leaders have to do with Abu Much’s future citizenship. Indeed, these might be decent arguments for switching sides.
But Abu Much is not arguing against Israel; he’s arguing for it. An Israeli Arab is complaining bitterly, in a Hebrew-language blog read by the Israeli political elite, that it is not him or his fellow “Arab citizens” (the term “Palestinian” as a reference to Israeli Arabs is glaring in its absence) who do damage to Israel’s good name in the international community, but settlers; indeed, that he pays his taxes even though he doesn’t get his share of the benefits.
In other words, that he is devotedly Israeli.
The inaccurate rhetoric Abu Much uses to describe Liberman’s plan thus becomes suddenly comprehensible. The plan treats Israel’s Arabs as “a herd of sheep and not citizens of the state,” he writes, and targets them because they happen to be “citizens who happen to belong to a minority” [my italics – H.R.G].
In both phrases, his complaint is not that Israeli Arabs are being moved or face discrimination. He knows the plan will not physically move them and transparently prefers being a member of a minority with Israeli citizenship than of a majority without it. Rather, he’s complaining that the plan ignores the citizenship itself, treats it as negotiable and unimportant.
Israeli Arabs are not uniformly anti-Israel, as both Liberman and Arab MKs insist. Half of them are downright proud to be Israelis.
Yisrael Beytenu has, in the past, called for the introduction of loyalty oaths for Israel’s minorities without which they would not receive all the benefits of citizenship. Yet, even as Israeli Arabs slowly begin to feel a part of the state, increasingly tell pollsters they support the IDF and even have confidence in recent right-wing governments, Yisrael Beytenu proposes to condition a final peace deal on their removal from the body politic.