Yesterday, after weeks of wrangling negotiations, the first concrete step towards the formation of a new Israeli cabinet was taken. A deal on forming a coalition government was signed between the rightwing Likud of Benyamin Netanyahu and the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu of Avidgor Lieberman.
According to the deal, Yisrael Beiteinu will get the Foreign Affairs, Tourism, National Infrastructure, Absorption (i.e. integration of Jews migrating to Israel) and Public Security portfolios. The political maverick Avigdor Lieberman himself will become the next Minister of Foreign Affairs of Israel. Notably, some political circles are a bit worried of the potential PR catastrophy of having the Zhirnovskyesque brute Lieberman as the face of Israel towards the international community. The fact that Lieberman was able to win that particular cabinet post, and that a party collegue of his will be in charge of 'Public Security', is a clear indication of the position of strength of Lieberman in the coalition talks. Lieberman's ascent to power denotes a marked shift of paradigms in Israeli politics, a testament of the increasingly intolerant and xenophobic mainstream Israeli polity.
Like many European counterparts, Lieberman seeks to redefine citizenship, arguing that citizenship should be revoked from 'illoyal' subjects. The idea that all citizens have to undertake patriotic pledges is also increasingly popular amongst West European politicians (in countries such as Sweden, with demands of mandatory language tests as a precondition for citizenship) who wish to benefit from xenophobic vote-banks.
Some commentators, hasbara bloggers and random political analysts, are quick to state that Lieberman doesn't represent the traditional Israeli far right and that labels such as 'ultranationalist' or 'fascist' are misleading. Lieberman is hated by sectors of West Bank settlers and disliked by some extreme rightist parties (see National Union smear-campaign video below) for his secularist positions. He supports many causes traditionally identified with liberals or leftists in Israeli politics. One such issue is the establishment of secular civil marriage unions, and demand partly met by Likud in the pre-coalition talks.
Lieberman and his party are part of an international phenomenon, an ongoing transformation and renewal of far-right politics. He is part of the same trend as Pim Fortyn in the Netherlands, the Norwegian Progress Party and the Austrian Jörg Haider. A shedding of skin of the far right could be one way to describe the process. Lieberman succesfully combines the core agenda of the far right (xenophobia) with a wide package of symbolic positionings against the traditional concept of rightwing extremism (allowing pork sales, supporting transports on the Sabbath, willingness to accept a two-state solution, willingness to concede lands to the Palestinians and withdrawing settlements, calling for Arabs to be drafted to the IOF). Thus many voters who would never think of touching a the far-right ballot can be mobilized, an the xenophobic agenda becomes part of the mainstream.
Before the elections, the pseudo-leftist Meretz had stated that they would urge international protests against a Lieberman government, similar to those directed against Austria after Jörg Haider's ascent to power in 2000. Arab Knesset member Ahmed Tibi has called for an 'international boycott' of Lieberman, stating that "No minister should meet him, especially no Arab minister".
But the Likud-Lieberman deal does not conclude the ordeal of securing an Israeli rightwing cabinet. The parties still stretch out a discrete olive branch to Livni's Kadima in order to form a broader unity cabinet (something Livni has rejected). Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu has 42 mandates together in the Knesset. They need another 19 to form a majority coalition. Talks are on with various ultra-Orthodox and far-right parties who are likely to join the cabinet. But there are various bones of contention between Lieberman and these parties. The criticism of the National Union (which has 4 seats) was noted above. Ultra-Orthodox forces like UTJ and Shas had campaigned with anti-Lieberman slogans, UTJ had called Lieberman a 'racist' whilst the Shas spiritual leader had stated that a vote for Lieberman was a satanic sin. Now they are likely to sit in the same cabinet. UTJ has rejected offers to get the Health or Social Affairs portfolios, stating that they demand to get the Construction portfolio (a portfolio also claimed by the National Union).
In short, the precarious game of coalition-building is far from over. But whoever wins in the end, the Palestinian people will suffer. Both Netanyahu and Lieberman promised the people of Gaza further bloodshed in the election campaign, and at this point there is no reason to doubt their intentions.
News links: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9
Blogging: Mikael W, Jinge, DK, Huffington Post, Actualidad 2.0, Xavier, Kildén & Åsman, Yonne, Melin, Dr. Nasir Khan, Svensson, annarkia, Tidens tecken, Ernst Klein
See also: Patriarchy strikes back, moralist spying on female IOF draftees
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