Sunday, February 8th, 2009
James Besser in Washington
Question: what are pro-Israel leaders here doing in preparation for Tuesday’s elections in Israel?
At least that’s what’s happening behind closed doors even as most Jewish leaders publicly insist there will be no change in U.S.-Israel relations no matter who becomes prime minister and gets to figure out how to cobble together a new government.
It’s not necessarily Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu who worries them. Netanyahu is currently leading in the polls, but by a narrowing margin.
Netanyahu may be a hawk’s hawk, with publicly stated positions that differ from those of a U.S. administration that wants to move forward on peace efforts, but there is a strong feeling in Washington that the Likud leader is a pragmatist who, after all the huffing and puffing of the campaigns is over, will find ways to work with the Obama administration.
Sure, he’s talking more and more about not giving back any more West Bank land or the Golan Heights, but the view in Washington is that such positions are little more than campaign rhetoric, and that in the end Bibi’s pragmatism and his desire to get along with Washington will prevail.
Far more worrisome to many pro-Israel leaders: the surprising rise of Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu party, which is running a strong third in the polling.
Lieberman, according to the newspaper Ha’aretz, is a former Kahanist; he has made Draconian suggestions about what to do about Israeli Arabs (transfer their communities out of Israel, make them sign loyalty oaths, shoot Israeli-Arab parliamentarians who meet with Hamas.) He is steadfastly against the two-state solution that remains the cornerstone of U.S. policy.
It’s hard to imagine how an Israeli government in which Lieberman plays a major role – and which gives him any role at all in foreign policy – will get along with an Obama administration that has pledged to move forward on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.
More worrisome to some pro-Israel leaders: what Lieberman’s rise will do to Israel’s image abroad, and in this country in particular.
Netanyahu is very Western; while many here may criticize his policies on peace talks, few see him as a racist or anti-democratic.
Lieberman’s image is very different, which is why some pro-Israel leaders are sweating next week’s elections. Lieberman won’t be prime minister, but he could end up with a much more visible platform for his ideas, as well as a much bigger role in Israeli policy even if Netanyahu, as promised, puts together a broad unity government.