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Israel's Government as a Settlement, Lieberman as the New Sharon

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Israelis can smell elections like desert creatures smell rain. And in the midst of a severe drought and obscenely, mockingly glorious clear skies, the distinctive snap in the air is, lamentably, of the campaign kind.

But while political figures sound calls which may signal possible elections within the coming new year, with Tzipi Livni finding her voice as head of the opposition, and Labor, Shas and other coalition partners reaching new depths of disaffection, Benjamin Netanyahu is working overtime to turn his government into a settlement.

Keen to avoid elections at literally all costs, Netanyahu's actions in recent weeks -- letting Avigdor Lieberman and Arab-hating rabbis run wild, humiliating the United States in the settlement freeze fiasco while exacerbating tensions with the Muslim world -- mean that his government now meets the five essential criteria of a settlement:

  1. It exists in order to obstruct progress toward Israeli-Palestinian peace.
  2. It insists that it has nothing to do with the impasse in Israeli-Palestinian peace.
  3. It serves the aims of the Orthodox Jewish minority, often at the direct expense of the needs and hopes of the Israeli majority, and the future of Israeli democracy.
  4. Its actions anger and alienate Israel's allies and further inflame its enemies.
  5. It will do anything - including at times of extreme risk to Israel, nothing - in order to avoid being dislodged.

The key to which path the government chooses or is forced to accept in 2011, whether it will be to go to elections, or to somehow hunker in the bunker, may well be the man whom Newsweek, in an intriguing stretch, is calling "Israel's most popular politician right now," Avigdor Lieberman.

In recent days, the foreign minister, a one-man flotilla, has drilled new holes directly into the hull of Netanyahu's ship of state, effectively declaring the prime minister's peace moves a fore-doomed failure and/or a sham, and Netanyahu's overtures for a rapprochement with Turkey, an example of boot-licking, ghetto-Jew masochism.

Moreover, as the strike of state prosecutors further insulates Lieberman from the threat of indictment on a range of international money laundering allegations -- a shadow that made staying in the current government a legal survival tactic for the foreign minister -- the Corporal from Kishinev is in a position to decide whether elections would be good for him or not, and take the rest of the country with him.

Functioning as a kind of internal combustion opposition within the Netanyahu cabinet, Avigdor Lieberman may, in fact, be taking Ariel Sharon as his model.

In the late '90s, rookie prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu tapped Sharon - at the time, easily the most widely and deeply reviled Israeli among Arabs, the left, and Israel's one close ally Washington -- to represent the Jewish state as foreign minister.

Like Sharon, Lieberman has the mercurial, Darwinian genius of the perfectly adapted, perennially underrated outsider. Like Sharon, he is adept at harnessing the political might of the shuk, the open market, which has an ingrained weakness for the coarse of message and the rude of gesture.

Like Sharon, Lieberman has taken advantage of a situation in which the party of the sitting prime minister, Netanyahu, came in second in a campaign characterized by an atomized, traumatized electorate (post-Rabin assassination and suicide bombings in 1996; post-armed struggle intifada, post-Gaza withdrawal, post-Sharon coma, post-Lebanon war, post Gaza war in 2009).

Like Sharon, Lieberman has been able to take advantage of the essential weakness of a restive, brittle Likud, torn between relative moderates (Dan Meridor, Michael Eitan, Gidon Saar, perhaps Gilad Erdan) who would accept a Clinton-type two-state model, and bedrock hardliners (Moshe Yaalon, Benny Begin, Danny Danon, Tzippi Hatoveli), who rule out all compromise with the Palestinians.

Like Sharon, Lieberman has been able to take advantage of a broken, toothless, disillusioned Israeli left. Like Sharon, he has been able to take shrewd advantage of the weaknesses of the Palestinian Authority and the strengths of Hamas.

Like Sharon, Lieberman is capable of absolutely anything.

Alone among prominent Israeli politicians, Lieberman has proposed territorial solutions which manage to puzzle and irk the entire spectrum, proposals so far afield that they are instantly discounted as infeasible, flatly impossible thought exercises. Like Sharon's disengagement from Gaza.

No other figure on the far right has advocated ceding part of East Jerusalem to Palestinian control. Certainly no other leading settler has proposed trading his own settlement in a far-reaching land swap with the Palestinians.

Could Lieberman, at some point, do the doubly unthinkable -- become prime minister and then make a dramatic move to end the Occupation?

The answer, oddly enough, is that if anyone can succeed by emulating Sharon, Lieberman is the one. He is the only contemporary Israeli politician scary enough, sly enough, inscrutable enough, ruthless enough, embittered enough, ideologically unfettered enough, and, perhaps most importantly, secular enough, to be able to bring it off.

In the end, the choice may not even be Israel's to make. Thanks to Netanyahu's bunker mentality, the anarchic workings of Israel's self-dismantling democracy, as well as the quiescence of an Israel public which has fought too many battles to be able to bring itself to fight one more, the choice, in the end, may be Lieberman's alone.

Originally published on haaretz.com

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli settlements, politics, world, Bradley Burston, Haaretz