Sly Foxman

Avigdor's American Apologist

Peter Beinart on the fallacies used by American Jewry's premier Avigdor Lieberman apologist.

Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman attends a party meeting in Jerusalem on Jul. 6, 2009. (Photo: Ronen Zvulun / Reuters)

Anti-Defamation League head Abraham Foxman thinks American Jews should give Avigdor Lieberman a chance. Now that Lieberman’s party, Yisrael Beiteinu, has merged with Likud, Foxman suggests (in the words of Forward reporter Nathan Guttman) that “it is time for the Jewish community to change its basic stance toward him.” Lieberman’s merger into Likud “should be seen, according to Foxman, as evidence that he is more of a pragmatist than many believe.”

Let’s count the fallacies. First, if Foxman really believes that a Yisrael Beiteinu-Likud merger means, in and of itself, that Lieberman is a pragmatist then he’d presumably have to say the same of Hamas if it merged with Fatah. In fact, there’s no evidence that Lieberman has abandoned his authoritarian, anti-Palestinian views as the price of joining Netanyahu’s ranks. And those figures in Likud most committed to democratic norms have said so. “This is no longer the Likud,” warned Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor after news of the merger broke. Another Likud cabinet minister, Michael Eitan, called the deal a “threat to Israeli democracy.”

Second, Foxman’s claim that “it is time for the Jewish community change its basic stance toward” Lieberman implies that American Jewish leaders were tough on him in the first place. Nothing could be further from the truth. In December 2006, when Lieberman took his first trip to the U.S. as Deputy Prime Minister, a New York Jewish Week headline declared, “Controversial Leader Gets Pass from Jewish Leaders.” And it quoted one Abraham Foxman as insisting that, “I don’t see anything extremist since he became part of the government.” In February 2009, after elections that boosted Lieberman’s power further, a Forward headline announced, “Jewish Leaders Largely Silent on Lieberman’s Role in Government.” A JTA headline declared, “Lieberman Loyalty Loath Proposal Finds Support in U.S.” At the time Foxman told Politico that “There is nothing in his speeches that indicates someone that would threaten the shared values that we have.” (To be fair, the ADL has at times criticized some of Lieberman’s most outrageous statements).

Since then, members of Lieberman’s party have introduced legislation allowing only Israelis who have completed military or other national service to serve in the Knesset, which would disqualify the vast majority of Israel’s Palestinian citizens. They’ve proposed imprisonment for Palestinians who publicly commemorate their expulsion from their homes in 1948. They’ve tried to change Israel’s Basic Law to prevent Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza Strip from gaining Israeli citizenship if they marry Israelis. And in a 2010 speech before the United Nations, Lieberman proposed redrawing Israel’s border so as to exile Palestinian citizens from the country against their will.

The party merger makes Lieberman—a former member of Meir Kahane’s Kach Party who in 2009 ran on the crudely racist slogan “only Lieberman understands Arabic”—Netanyahu’s heir apparent as leader of the Israeli right. If he assumes that role, and perhaps even Israel’s prime ministership, we can all look forward to more comments by Abraham Foxman suggesting that the American Jewish leadership cease its irrational hostility and give him a fighting chance.