The Problem Isn’t Avigdor Lieberman

By Ellen Cantarow

No one doubts that Avigdor Lieberman is a thug. His ultimata ("Those who think that through concessions they will gain respect and peace are wrong," etc, New York Times Thursday, April 2, 2009) were designed to shock. On this site Neve Gordon’s revelations of Lieberman’s many corruptions, his beating of a 12-year-old child, his exhortation to bomb Gaza as the US bombed Hiroshima, supply further ugly evidence against the man, and fuel the flash-fires burning through the Internet in the wake of his appointment as Israel’s foreign minister.

So he should be denounced by all means, but it is certain that the problems attaching to his name are not going away. On the contrary — particularly given President Obama’s repudiation of Lieberman during the President’s speech in Ankara, Turkey, and his avowed loyalty to a ‘two-state solution’ – these problems will appear in a different form, specifically in regard to the nature of the “two states” under the guidance of Obama, Netanyahu & Co. 

If the Lieberman appointment wasn’t specifically designed to have him play bad cop to everyone else’s good cop, it’s certainly turning out that way. A recent J Street petition urges me and thousands of on-line others to denounce Lieberman as a threat to “our community’s values,” and also to endorse J Street’s offer of “our best wishes and congratulations … pledging to help Benjamin Netanyahu’s government where possible, and push when necessary, to achieve the goal of real peace and security for Israel, the Palestinians, and the whole Middle East.”

This is truly a dangerous path. Three years ago, Lieberman proposed annexing to the northern West Bank parts of the Galilee with large Arab populations. At the heart of this region is Wadi Ara, described in a US media account a few years ago as “a seasonal riverbed adjacent to the West Bank.” With a majority Arab population, Wadi Ara has been Israel’s ever since Ben-Gurion wrenched an agreement from Jordan’s King Abdullah that he cede the land as part of the post-war armistice agreement.

The area’s story goes back farther. During a 2005 US trip, Shimon Peres suggested to American listeners that US “disengagement funds” (your tax dollars at work after the famed Gaza “pull-out”) should be employed to “develop” Wadi Ara – that is, to resettle the “dispossessed” Gaza settlers there. This echoed Irving Howe’s suggestion in The New York Times Book Review (May, 16, 1982), that more Jews be sent to the “under-populated Galilee” – “under-populated,” that is, in the sense that New York was “under-populated” by whites until the gentrification projects of the housing “boom years.”

Lieberman set the Peres idea on its head with his “land-swap” notion but both proposals have in common their preoccupation with the “the demographic issue.” On this, just about all of Israel – and much of so called “liberal Jewish” America – is united, extreme-right through left, the devil being only in the details how to resolve it for good.

Lieberman’s suggestion was deemed “illegal” by Israeli scholars, but it has found sympathetic supporters ever since. As it stands now, it could easily trot forward as a “two-state solution” under US-Israeli aegis. (1) This is what is ignored in the hysteria about Lieberman’s actual appointment: “transfer,” long an Israeli option, may actually take place in the near future. (Lieberman’s has been called “soft transfer”)

In the Washington Post February, 2006, Henry Kissinger enthusiastically endorsed the idea without mentioning Lieberman by name: “The most logical outcome would be to trade Israeli settlement blocs around Jerusalem … for some equivalent territories in present-day Israel with significant Arab populations. The rejection of such an approach … which would contribute greatly to stability and to demographic balance reflects a determination to keep incendiary issues permanently open.”

Incendiary issues” no doubt include Wadi Ara Arabs’ bitter resistance to the “land swap” notion. “Stability” and “demographic balance” are code for the purity of the Jewish state, once it’s been relieved of its “demographic problem,” and once potentially fractious Arabs have come under the boot of the Palestinian Authority, the US-Israel regional puppet. 

Around the same time Kissinger wrote his commentary, Israel National News reported that Knesset member Otniel Schneller of Kadima, “considered to be one of the people closest and most loyal to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert,” had proposed something similar to Lieberman’s “swap” idea. Schneller’s plan was “more gradual.” The annexed, former Israeli Arab citizens would still be of the Jewish state. Their land, however, would belong to the Palestinian Authority and they wouldn’t be allowed to resettle anywhere else in Israel. (2)

A more recent recruit to this bandwagon is Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who has said a “Palestinian state” could “be the national answer to the Palestinians” in the territories and those “who live in different refugee camps or in Israel.”

One assumes that this plan will keep popping up and that (the incendiary Lieberman kept tidily in the wings while his shoot-from-the-mouth behavior distracts the attention of “the left”) that it could well come to fruition. The New York Times’ Ethan Bronner reported February 12 that “the left” likes Lieberman’s “willingness to create two states, one Jewish, one Palestinian, which would involve yielding areas that are now part of Israel.” Note Bronner’s use of “willingness” and “yielding,” suggesting his own tacit endorsement of Israel’s magnanimity. (Bronner, of course, quoted no Arab voices from Wadi Ara, nor did he mention that what Israel would yield is land inhabited by untermenschen. At best the vast majority of Israelis consider the Arabs to be people who need “help” — as in the suggestion 32 years ago by Irving Howe’s disciple, Michael Walzer, that the indigenous people are “marginal to the nation.” His solution was “helping people to leave who have to leave.” (3)

Again, there’s no need to ask the people of Wadi Ara and such “Arab” areas how they feel because, after all, the land isn’t theirs to begin with. The Jewish National Fund controls more than 90 percent of Israel’s land and the JNF must use charitable funds in ways that “directly or indirectly [benefit] … persons of Jewish religion, race or origin.” The JNF is “recognized by the Government of Israel and the World Zionist Organization as the exclusive instrument for the development of Israel’s lands.” Such development is open, forever, only to Jews. (4)

And so, amidst much celebration (hand-shakes on the White House lawn, etc.) the new “two-state” solution could well be realized in the not-so-distant future. A Palestinian ghetto would exist alongside a Jewish state, which would of course include the settlements. “The demographic problem” bedeviling Zionists ever since two rabbis returned in the 19th century with the report that the bride was “beautiful but married to another man,” would vanish. Now and then, on a distant hilltop, a lone goatherd might appear, nostalgically suggesting “simpler” and more “traditional” times. Palestinian embroidery would be sold at appointed places, to adorn the persons and furniture of pure Jews commuting back and forth to a now purely Jewish Jerusalem and Tel Aviv from, say, purely Jewish Maale Adumim. American readers wearing exquisite Navajo turquoise jewelry – this writer among them – will recognize these images.

* * *

How could it have come to this? Surely not for want of countless early warning signals. Here, for example, is Moshe Dayan in an interview with BBC reporter, Alan Hart, May 14, 1973:

Alan Hart – Why are you seeking to establish more and more settlements? The Arabs think that your goal is to stay in Transjordan for eternity.
Dayan – That’s right. In fact I think that Israelis should stay in Transjordan for eternity and till the end of time.
Hart—Arabs listening to you now, including President Sadat, will say: “There you are! Dayan has confirmed that he’s only after territorial expansion…
Dayan—OK, if you think the desire to feel at home throughout all of Transjordan is an expansionist ambition. If that’s what you call being “expansionist,” then I’m an expansionist.” — from Amnon Kapeliouk’s Israel: la fin des mythes (Israel: an end to all myths), Editions Albin Michel, 1975 (translation mine.)

Nor should one forget Dayan’s 1967 comment to colleagues about what they should tell the Palestinians: “[Y]ou shall continue to live like dogs, and whoever prefers—may leave…” (5) Or, farther back in time, Chaim Weizmann’s remarks about the 1917 Balfour declaration, on record with the Jewish Agency Executive: “[W]ith regard to the Arab question – the British told me that there are several hundred thousand negroes there but that this matter has no significance.” In Fateful Triangle, Noam Chomsky quotes US journalist Vincent Sheean, who “arrived in Palestine as an avid Zionist in 1929, [and who] left a few months later a harsh critic of the Zionist enterprise largely because of the attitudes among the Jewish settlers towards what they called the ‘uncivilized race’ of ‘savages’ and ‘Red Indians,’ ‘squatters for thirteen centuries’…” (6)

In Defending the Holy Land: A Critical Analysis of Israel’s Security & Foreign Policy, (University of Michigan Press, 2006), Israeli security and foreign policy analyst Zeev Maoz shows that Israel was conceived through deliberate policy choices as a “Sparta state.” All of its governments from Ben Gurion forward have relied on Zeev Jabotinsky’s “Iron Wall” doctrine. This doctrine translates as military blows "to convince the Arabs of the futility and illogic of their dreams. Over time, the Arabs will come to accept the Jewish state and to make peace with it." (7) (See this writer’s review at ZNet.) The destruction of Gaza this past winter is the latest of such actions designed to persuade the natives that their dreams are futile and illogical.

It cannot be over-emphasized that without the US, Israel could not have gotten to this point. (8) President Obama is turning out to be more of the same. Announcing the appointment of George Mitchell as his Middle East envoy, Obama said:

“Senator Mitchell will … help Israel reach a broader peace with the Arab world. Let me be clear: America is committed to Israel’s security. And we will always support Israel’s right to defend itself against legitimate threats. . . To be a genuine party to peace, the quartet has made it clear that Hamas must meet clear conditions: recognize Israel’s right to exist; renounce violence; and abide by past agreements … I should add that the Arab peace initiative contains constructive elements that could help advance these efforts. Now is the time for Arab states to act on the initiative’s promise by supporting the Palestinian government under President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad, taking steps towards normalizing relations with Israel, and by standing up to extremism that threatens us all.” (9)

The emphases on Israel’s “right to defend itself,” the requirement that Hamas toe the quartet’s line, the underscoring of the US-Israel puppet regime – all this is obvious. What is not so obvious is Obama’s deliberate choice to eviscerate the Arab League’s 2002 proposal, the body of which requires Israel to withdraw to its 1967 borders with some modifications. Obama quotes a corollary to the proposal, a small paragraph requiring Arab states to “normalize” relations with Israel – the corollary has as its premise that first Israel must make real (not bogus) land concessions. This was the solution almost reached at the Israeli-Palestinian talks in Taba, Egypt in 2001: Ehud Barak withdrew. (10)

Just so, Israel refused in 1971 what was then a dazzling prospect, President Anwar Sadat’s offer of full peace. Egypt was the regional Arab super-power, and peace with it would have ensured future treaties with other Arab countries. (The Palestinians were not considered by Sadat, who was interested only in Israel’s withdrawal from the Sinai, which it had taken in 1967.) The consequence of Israel’s rejection, a choice of expansionism over security — one that Henry Kissinger, backing Golda Meir, enabled — was the Yom Kippur War. This cost Israel the lives of three thousand Israeli soldiers; a "staggering" loss of equipment (Zeev Maoz’s term); $10 billion in overall damages. On at least two occasions Israel armed its nuclear warheads, bringing the region to the brink of nuclear war. (11) 

Israel rejected security for expansionism at Oslo as well, no matter what the “generous offer” myths may say. It continues to do so as I write. More bad news floods our e-mail boxes about the rotting concentration camp in Gaza. US-Israel apparently intends to make it an international charity case, an occasional shooting gallery for WMD testing in dense urban areas, or both. At the same time, bad news comes from the West Bank, where arrests and kidnapping of Palestinians, the shooting of international solidarity workers, home demolitions, settler pogroms, further annexations in East Jerusalem, and all the rest of it, continue at a brisk and unimpeded pace. Such is US-Israel’s history. Such is the present. In all of this Avigdor Lieberman is merely an exclamation mark. Those who want change should focus on the larger picture.

– Ellen Cantarow is a Boston-based musician and writer. She contributed this article to Contact her at:


1. I am indebted to Noam Chomsky’s essay, “Good News, Iraq and Beyond,” for ideas about the Lieberman “land swap” and some of the politicians who embraced it. See Znet.

2. Ibid.

3. “Nationalism, Internationalism, and the Jews: the chimera of a binational state,” in Irving Howe & Carl Gershman, Israel, the Arabs and the Middle East (Bantam, 1972).

4. “Good News, Iraq and Beyond.” Chomsky discusses a recent (only partly successful) challenge to the JNF’s blatantly racist practices.

5. Noam Chomsky, Fateful Triangle (South End Press, 1983, 1989), p. 481. Dayan made this statement in a September, 1967 meeting, suggesting what his colleagues should tell Palestinians. The original sources is Yossi Beilin. Shimon Peres protested that that Israel should preserve its moral stand, and Dayan replied, “Ben Gurion said that anyone who approaches the Zionist problem in a moral aspect is not a Zionist.”

6. Ibid.

7. Zeev Maoz, Defending the Holy Land: A Critical Analysis of Israel’s Security & Foreign Policy (University of Michigan, 2006) p. 9

8. A crucial article recently posted at Znet, by Irene Gendzier, proves through her analysis of a rich assortment of quotes by US officials, that in 1948 everyone in US power knew precisely what was happening to Palestine’s Arab population. They looked on – some with horror, some with skepticism. Those who saw in Israel the prospect of a future Spartan guarantor of US “interests” (post-British-French hegemony in the region and access to its oil) looked on with cold curiosity. After 1967 the deal was, so to speak, signed, sealed and delivered.

9.  “President Barack Obama Delivers Remarks to State Department Employees,” The Washington Post, January 22, 2009.

10. See Ran HaCohen’s portrait of Barak, whose record is equally as appalling as Lieberman’s, at Also see Idith Zerta and Akiva Eldar’s essential Lords of the Land: The War Over Israel’s Settlements In The Occupied Territories, 1967 – 2007, for rich descriptions of Barak’s affection for the most extreme of Israel’s right-wing religious nationalist settlers.

11. Maoz, p. 417.

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