THE BLOG

Avigdor Lieberman's Makeover Won't Work

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Right-wing Israeli politician Avigdor Lieberman is in the midst of a makeover worthy of reality TV. With an op-ed in the Jewish Week, a team in Washington (including the former ambassador to the U.S. Danny Ayalon) and an assist from namesake Joe Lieberman, the full court press is in motion to convince Americans that Lieberman isn't the far-right demagogue he played in the recent campaign.

Interestingly, I discovered from his op-ed that Lieberman and I actually agree on one thing: the strength of the U.S.-Israel relationship is rooted in deeply shared values and national interests that tie the countries together and American Jews to the state of Israel.

Unfortunately, it is Lieberman's platform that threatens those values and interests, and Benjamin Netanyahu should think carefully about the implications, for the U.S.-Israel relationship, of including Lieberman in the next Israeli government.

American Jews should not be fooled by Lieberman's attempted makeover. While he may not use the crude terms of the late Meir Kahane, to whose political movement he once belonged, his positions are no less poisonous. As the Israeli daily Ha'aretz pointed out, Lieberman:

Takes care to use 'clean' language because, in contrast to Kahane, the rabble-rousing religious nationalist, Lieberman is an extreme right-wing politician who blends into his neoconservative worldview colonialist and racist elements. And like leaders of the extreme nationalist racist right in Europe -- Jean-Marie Le Pen, Joerg Haider and others -- he is aiming his propaganda straight at society's nucleus of fear and weakness, fanning nationalist sentiments and using a minority as a punching bag.

While it is the responsibility of Israelis to choose their government, it is the responsibility of American Jews to make clear the damage Lieberman's program could do.

Some American Jewish leaders, to their credit, are speaking out. The leader of America's Reform Jews, Rabbi Eric Yoffie has written that Lieberman ran "an outrageous, abominable, hate-filled campaign, brimming with incitement that if left unchecked could lead Israel to the gates of hell." The head of the American Jewish Committee, David Harris, has written that some of Lieberman's proposals are "deeply irresponsible at best," and threaten to "chill" Israeli democracy.

So what should we American Jews and supporters of Israel do about Lieberman's rise?

For more than six decades American Jews have provided Israel generally unquestioning support. As the pioneer generations made the desert bloom, we sent the seeds. As the young country's army fought and defeated larger enemies, we armed its soldiers. As old warriors ultimately sought to make peace, we provided the table for negotiations.

Through thick and thin, American Jews have expressed profound and enduring love for all that Israel stands for, the hopes on which it was built, and the dreams it aimed to fulfill. Yet for sixty years, the relationship has been a one-way street: what Israel needed, we provided. When Israel asked us to jump, we asked how high?

Underneath it all lay the recognition that despite whatever might divide us, shared democratic values and national interests cemented our relationship.

The question posed by both the Lieberman phenomenon and the rightward drift in Israeli politics is: what happens when Israeli and American values and interests start to diverge?

American Jews are rightfully proud of their historic role in this country's struggle for minority rights and social justice. The election of Barack Obama -- with 78 percent support from the Jewish community -- is seen by many as a crowning achievement for the decades long fight for Jewish values and against racism, intolerance and discrimination.

Meanwhile, the new Obama administration is stating more clearly than ever before that America's national interest includes ending the Arab-Israeli and Palestinian-Israeli conflicts once and for all.

Should Israel choose the Lieberman path, limiting the democratic rights of its Arab citizens, it will run directly counter to profound American Jewish values.

Should Israel rebuff American diplomatic efforts and continue building settlements and cementing the occupation of Palestinian territory, it will run directly counter to the stated national interest of the United States.

The choice ahead for Israel represents more than the decision whether or not to include a right-wing demagogue in the next government. It is also about the direction of the country and the health of its relationship with the United States and American Jews.

The next Prime Minister of Israel should think long and hard before steering Israel down a path so sharply at odds with the values of American Jewry and the critical national interests of the United States.