Jewish leader breaks with colleagues, takes sharp look at Avigdor Lieberman

Friday, February 27th, 2009

James Besser in Washington

I was thinking about writing something on Avigdor Lieberman’s  Jewish Week op-ed on “The Case for ‘Responsible Citizenship,’” which is getting a lot of attention around the world, but then I reread American Jewish Committee director David Harris’ rebuttal and realized he had covered the ground with his customary thoroughness (it’s a little buried on our home page; read it here).

What’s particularly interesting is Harris’ candor in the midst of a campaign by his colleagues in the pro-Israel leadership to redefine Lieberman as something of a misunderstood moderate – a campaign that is taking on greater urgency now that it’s clear Lieberman seems to be campaigning to be Israel’s next foreign minister.

In his Jewish Week op-ed Lieberman writes in soothing, rational tones, but  as Harris points out, the picture is incomplete without a close examination of the many controversial positions the rising star in Israeli politics has taken over the years.

Many Jewish leaders are now arguing that Lieberman’s demand for a loyalty oath is every bit as benign as requiring school children here to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.  Harris sees through that thin argument, saying an oath requirement would shift “ the presumption from innocence to guilt. It would define an entire class of Israelis as suspected traitors. And it would chill Israel’s democratic political debate.”

Harris isn’t suggesting  U.S.-Israel relations will tank if Lieberman gets the Foreign Ministry, and he’s right; even a liberal administration determined to move forward on Israeli-Palestinian peace as defined by earlier peace negotiations will find ways to work with a new government that includes Lieberman.

His colleagues in the pro-Israel leadership, understandably concerned about the impact of a top cabinet post for Lieberman, are trying to give Lieberman a patchwork PR job; Harris implies the Jewish leadership needs to examine Lieberman through a sharper lens if it wants to be truly effective in protecting the U.S.-Israel relationship in what could be a difficult leadership transition.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.