Ehud Olmert launched the Gaza attack on December 27 and Israel goes to the polls on February 10, so the fighting's electoral impact has been closely watched. At first, Ehud Barak being minister of defense and head of the Labor Party translated into gains for Labor. But as the fighting wore on, a surprise development took place, one that has potential significance for the future of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
"Lieberman gained most from war, surveys say," writes Gil Hoffman in the Jerusalem Post, referring to Avigdor Lieberman of the Israel Beiteinu Party. Five recent polls (by Panels for the Knesset Channel 99, the Kadima Party, Israel Beiteinu, Dialog, Ma'agar Mohot) found Israel Beiteinu winning, respectively, 15, 15, 15, 14, and 13 seats, in some cases even with or leading Labor.
Why this surge in support? Israel Beiteinu officials explain that
the party's rise in support actually began before the war began on December 27, but it intensified as a result of anti-Israel demonstrations during the operation in universities and Arab towns. There were calls of "death to Israel" at the protests and the mayor of Sakhnin, who receives an NIS 27,000 [US$7,000] monthly salary from the state, said he would be "honored to be a shahid in Jerusalem."
"Such vocal protests supporting Hamas while our soldiers were in Gaza made people realize that it's stupid to give benefits to people who support terrorist groups that are trying to kill our soldiers," an Israel Beiteinu official said. "People said, 'Enough is enough,' and only Lieberman was addressing that issue. While other leaders were out of touch on this issue, Lieberman captured the people's voice."
To capitalize on the anti-Arab sentiment, Israel Beiteinu's television, radio and Internet ads will highlight anti-Israel quotes from Arab MKs. Israel Beiteinu has also led the effort to ban Balad from running for Knesset.
Avigdor Lieberman of Israel Beiteinu.
The quote refers to the fact that Lieberman has made his name urging a tougher policy toward disloyalty among Israeli Arabs. For one example, note this report in The New York Sun on a talk he gave, when deputy prime minister in late 2006, to the Middle East Forum:
"The conflict includes not only the Arabs in Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza Strip, but Israeli Arabs also," Mr. Lieberman said. "The linkage between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli Arab population — it will destroy us, it is impossible. What is the logic of creating one and a half country for one people and a half country for the Jewish people?"
Mr. Lieberman spoke of requiring Israelis to sign a commitment to loyalty to the Israeli flag and to its national anthem, and of requiring service in the army or alternative national service. Citizens who refuse to sign the declaration, he said, could continue as permanent residents of Israel, working, studying, and receiving health care benefits, but they could not vote in national elections or be elected to national office. … He said he would also deny Israeli citizenship to extreme anti-Zionist Orthodox Jewish groups, such as the Neturei Karta, which sent representatives to this week's Holocaust denial conference in Tehran.
Mr. Lieberman said the "close linkage" between Israeli Arabs and the Arabs of the Palestinian Authority is a result of Israeli "weakness." "If we will be more strong, more tough, they will be more loyal," he said. "They are really afraid about their future."
He defended his statement that Israeli Arab parliamentarians who went to Damascus and met with Hamas should be shot, and he said Americans would understand that position. He asked whether one could imagine an American congressman or senator going to Tora Bora during the war in Afghanistan and meeting with Osama bin Laden, then returning to a seat in Congress.
Comment: If, as seems to be the case, Lieberman's views are getting traction in Israel, this is a major development. Israeli Arabs have recently shown signs of becoming overt enemies of the Jewish state and have been recognized as such by Shin Bet (which calls Israel's Arab population a "genuine long-range danger to the Jewish character and very existence of the State of Israel."); these polls may signify that the electorate has begun to focus on this, the ultimate Arab-Israeli battleground. (January 20, 2009)
Feb. 6, 2009 update: Lieberman is continuing to surge, the polls indicate. From a hostile Wall Street Journal report:
Israeli politicians have long tried to woo voters with tough talk about the country's many enemies. What's notable about Mr. Lieberman, analysts say, is the degree to which he is vilifying Arab citizens, and the success he appears to be having doing it. Recent polls indicate his party will get as many as 19 seats in the country's 120-seat Knesset, up from its current 11 and just shy of the 26 forecast for the Likud Party, which leads the polls. …
"For many years we said to ourselves that we don't hate, that hatred is something the others do," says Israeli historian and author Tom Segev. "This has changed now. It has become legitimate to hate the Arabs. It is an indication of just how far to the right Israel has moved." …
the country's politicians appear to be echoing Mr. Lieberman's bellicose rhetoric. Ms. Livni said in December that if elected she would tell Israel's Arab citizens "your national aspirations lie elsewhere," comments widely interpreted as an endorsement of Mr. Lieberman's plan to transfer Israel's Arabs to Palestinian control.
Feb. 11, 2009 update: I assess Lieberman's strength yesterday at the polls for National Review Online in "Who Won in Israel's Elections?"
Feb. 12, 2009 update: The official Knesset results page shows Liebeman's party coming in third with 11.7 percent of the vote, behind Kadima with 22.5 percent and Likud with 21.6 percent, but ahead of Labor with 9.9 percent.
Mar. 31, 2009 update: Robert O. Freedman, Pearlstone Professor of Political Science at Baltimore Hebrew University, writes:
the leaders of the Israeli Arab community have increasingly identified with Israel's enemies, particularly Hamas and Hezbollah, and have written several policy documents that effectively call for the end of the Jewish State. These actions have precipitated increasing anger against the Israeli Arabs—or Palestinian Israelis,as many now wish to define themselves—and have enabled politicians such as Lieberman to capitalize on this anger for electoral purposes. Indeed, it is estimated that one-third of his vote came from non-Russian Israelis angry at the Israeli Arabs. …
as tensions rise between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Israelis, the Arabs may soon face a difficult choice. The more they identify with Hamas and Hezbollah—organizations dedicated to the destruction of Israel—the more Lieberman's ideas will become popular. Assuming Lieberman is not sidetracked by a series of corruption investigations against him, Yisrael Beiteinu may increase in its electoral strength in future elections—something that has to worry not only Israel's Arab community, but politicians on the right side of Israel's political spectrum, such as Binyamin Netanyahu.