Israel’s most notorious anti-Arab politician and provocateur, Avigdor Lieberman, spoke at Brookings’ Saban Center Forum in Washington, DC this past weekend. It will probably come as a surprise to most Americans that such a man could rise to the position of Israel’s deputy prime minister and the minister for strategic affairs. He is Israel’s David Duke and yet he was feted in New York and Washington during his visit here.
Initial reporting indicated that Henry Kissinger would chair Lieberman’s session. No surprise there. Both men are advocates of a “land swap” between Israelis and Palestinians, a euphemism for the ethnic cleansing of Arabs from Israel. Kissinger’s office, however, claims to have sent its regrets to the exclusive gathering.
Lieberman far outstrips Kissinger in the force of his rhetoric with his calls to drown Palestinian prisoners in the Dead Sea, as reported in Ha’aretz, and his declaration that 90 percent of Arabs have no place in Israel but should “take their packages and go to hell.” Clearly, or so one would think, it is racist to strip a minority population of citizenship without that being the wish of the affected group. Indeed, there is no indication Arabs desire to leave Israel for a rump Palestinian state consigned to continual subjugation by Israel.
Nonetheless, Kissinger made his case for moving Arabs out of Israel in the Washington Post of Dec. 3, 2004. In exchange for “some 5 to 8 percent” of the West Bank, “Israel would transfer some of its current territory to the Palestinian state.” He advises transferring “territory with significant Arab populations from the northern part of Israel. Such a transfer would be symbolically more significant, but would also ease the demographic problem.” In other words, get the Arabs out of Israel and complete the ethnic cleansing begun by Israel in 1948 when some 700,000 Palestinians were expelled.
The deputy prime minister is no longer an obscure politician, but the second most popular politician in Israel behind Binyamin Netanyahu. His party, Yisrael Beiteinu, holds nearly 10 percent of the seats in Israel’s Knesset. And his demagogic language has a real appeal in Israel, while evidently not being so vile as to frighten off the Saban Center or the Clintons who were to speak shortly before and after Lieberman. The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations welcomed him in New York on Dec. 12.
Such organizations may claim that hosting him does not constitute endorsement, but it does provide him with legitimacy, particularly if he is not publicly and frequently confronted on his unapologetic displays of bigotry.
Sen. Hillary Clinton has certainly never shown qualms in rubbing elbows with Israel’s backers of ethnic cleansing. In 2002 she met with Benny Elon of the Moledet party, which openly calls for the “transfer” of Palestinians.
She is not the only Democrat eagerly cozying up to a Saban Center Forum offering a platform for Lieberman to share his bigoted views. Rep. Jane Harman claims, “When the Saban Center talks, I listen.” An invited speaker, she had the “opportunity” to listen to a backer of ethnic cleansing in polite Washington company. Did she or any of the invited guests call him on it? It is doubtful and the transcript is not yet available. The Progressive Caucus and Congressional Black Caucus, expected leaders on issues of bigotry, have given this hatemonger a pass.
The peculiar dimension of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on Capitol Hill is that there is no real debate. Democrats and Republicans are almost universally prepared to turn a blind eye to Israeli human rights violations. That was certainly the case this summer when members of Congress applauded the care Israel was taking to protect Lebanese civilians at the very time it was killing hundreds of them.
Lieberman’s visit exemplifies American officials’ silence as members of Congress have refused to show moral leadership regarding this bigot from an allied nation. Sen. Joe Lieberman, Rep. Tom Lantos, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with him yet offered no indications that they had directly challenged him on his racism. We would be foolish to think that people in the Middle East are unaware of our shortcomings and double standards.
President Jimmy Carter recently has made some extraordinary comments on our failure in this country to grapple with Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian territory. “There’s never been any debate on this issue of any significance. And the news media are acquiescent, members of the Congress are acquiescent, where the rest of the world debates this intensely, particularly in Israel.” The Washington Post and New York Times completely ignored Lieberman’s visit.
Professors Mearsheimer and Walt opened the door to debate this spring and President Carter has demonstrated enormous courage this fall in calling Israel’s actions in occupied Palestinian territory “apartheid.” Now it is time for a full-fledged debate in the U.S. Congress over the wisdom of permitting and even aiding Israel in what President Carter openly regards as “colonizing the West Bank.”
(Boston-based CAMERA, a member organization of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, resorted earlier this month to revolting rhetoric to rival Lieberman’s when it suggested that Carter was “losing his mind” or perhaps showing signs of “senility.” CAMERA’s words, now deleted from its website, merited public censure from the Conference. It did not happen. Such a rebuke was necessary if that body intended to retain some shred of decency at the very moment it was hosting Israel’s leading racist.)
Presumably, if exposed to the facts, Americans would say that while they care for Israel they do not want to assist Israel – and an attention-seeking racist such as Lieberman – in perpetually dominating the Palestinians. It is time for Congress to take this up with substantive debate.
Michael F. Brown is a fellow at the Palestine Center. His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Center. Previously he was executive director of Partners for Peace and Washington correspondent for Middle East International. He is on the Board of Interfaith Peace-Builders.