What Lieberman wants

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Last week Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told his countrymen they needn't worry about Iran's escalating confrontation with the US because he has a direct line to Allah. Allah, he said, has assured him that everything will be just fine. Ahmadinejad also promised that Iran would not cease its enrichment of uranium "even for one day." Iran's nuclear triumph is imminent, Allah's messenger promised. "We have one more step," he enthused, "if we pass that, this [matter] will be attained."

 

In Lebanon, Italy and France plan to sell the Lebanese military their Aster-15 advanced anti-aircraft system. This deal along with France's announcement that its forces in UNIFIL will shoot down IAF aircraft flying over Lebanese airspace, shows clearly that UNIFIL forces are shielding Hizbullah from Israel rather than working to dismantle Iran's illegal terror army.

 

With Egypt's blessing, in Gaza today, Hamas and Fatah are rapidly building up their military capabilities. Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, the Bush administration's golden boy, is so weak that even his own Fatah terror group won't follow him. In its meeting this week in Amman, Fatah's central committee rejected Abbas's plans to overthrow the Hamas regime. Increasingly, Fatah is joining Hamas in becoming a wholly owned subsidiary of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

 

Two weeks before the US Congressional elections, the Bush administration is losing its will. Last week R. Nicholas Burns, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs who holds responsibility for the US's Iran policy, extolled the continuation of negotiations with Iran. While he admitted that the US never rules out any option for dealing with Iran's nuclear weapons program, Burns said, "We are absolutely dedicated to diplomacy." More than anything else, he said, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wants to "sit down herself with the Iranians on the nuclear issue."

 

On Iraq as well, the Bush administration is wobbling. President George W. Bush appointed his father's secretary of state James Baker III to cobble together a new American strategy for Iraq that will reportedly preclude victory as a strategic aim.

 

All these developments bode ill for Israel. But Israelis could be forgiven for not knowing about any of them. Rather than report the news, our media feed us a diet of snuff: President Moshe Katsav's legal and moral woes; the prospect of a new violent clash between the IDF and religious Israelis; polymorphous prospects for peace with Syria, Lebanon and Abbas; and canned inquiries into the IDF's failures in Lebanon.

 

Above and beyond all else, we haven't the time to think about the growing threats to our country because we are wholly engaged in a vacuous debate about electoral reform. Indeed, from our political leadership's perspective, Iranian nuclear bombs are nothing compared to the "chronic instability" of Israeli governments.

 

The man responsible for making us talk about governmental reform is Israel Beiteinu Party leader MK Avigdor Lieberman. Lieberman, the uber-hawk of "expel the Arabs" fame, now wishes to join Olmert's dovish government. Lieberman claims that in exchange for his support, Olmert must embrace his proposal for a constitutional reform that would turn Israel from a parliamentary democracy into a presidential system of government.

 

Lieberman's public persona is in many ways an encapsulation of all that is wrong with Israel's leaders today. Like his colleagues on the Left, Lieberman touts an attractive sounding policy for dealing with the Arabs which only suffers from the marginal defect of being completely irrational.

 

The Left demands that we give our enemies Judea, Samaria and the Golan Heights in exchange for a piece of paper. Lieberman intends to keep the Golan Heights, forgo the paper and throw in the Galilee to advance what he sees as ethnic partitioning.

 

When you get right down to it, the greatest difference between Lieberman and the Left is rhetorical. Lieberman is willing to give our land to our enemies because he hates the Arabs. The Left is willing to give our land to our enemies because they hate the Jews.

 

If the Left truly wanted peace with the Arabs, rather than signing deals with our enemies, its leaders would help to strengthen those lone voices in Palestinian society and in the wider Arab world that express a substantive, meaningful desire to live at peace with Israel.

 

If Lieberman were serious about solving the problem of growing irredentism among Israeli Arabs, he wouldn't be talking about partitioning the land between Israel and its enemies. He would be talking about partitioning Israel into electoral districts for direct elections of Knesset members. A review of Israel's demographic situation clearly indicates that by moving from a proportional to district electoral system, it would be possible to largely neutralize the threat to national security posed by anti-Israel forces among Israeli Arabs. But judging from Lieberman's past, it is far from clear that solving Israel's problems is his primary interest.

 

Lieberman first rose to prominence as the director-general of the Prime Minister's Bureau under Binyamin Netanyahu. When Lieberman resigned in 1998, he went into private business. Lieberman always claims that his business dealings are no one else's business. But ongoing criminal probes into his business dealings raise suspicions that they are intimately connected to his political activities.

 

Lieberman has been the subject of bribery and fraud investigations since 1998. According to press accounts, in August 1998 Lieberman was briefly hired as a consultant for Bank Austria Creditanstalt. At that time, the Russian ruble had just lost some 80 percent of its value. Bank Austria Creditanstalt, which had invested in ruble futures, stood to lose hundreds of millions of dollars. The bank paid Lieberman $3 million in the hope that he would be able to intervene somehow to raise the value of the ruble.

 

As one bank official told The Jerusalem Post in 2004, "We were in a difficult situation. We were told that Lieberman had contacts in Russia and that he could help with the Russian crisis."

 

Coincidentally or not, after Lieberman was hired, the ruble's value rose. The police reportedly suspect that Lieberman worked with members of the Russian mafia to raise the value of the ruble.

 

In 2000 the criminal probe of Lieberman was widened following the publication of the State Comptroller's Report regarding the financing of the 1999 Knesset elections. The report claimed that Lieberman financed his party's 1999 campaign with a million dollar line of credit from an Austrian bank. The investigators suspect that Austrian billionaire Martin Schlaff, the part owner of the casino in Jericho, was the source of the line of credit. In 2000 it was reported that Lieberman the super hawk met with Yasser Arafat's close advisor Muhammad Rashid. Rashid was a partner in the Jericho casino's revenues.

 

In February 2004 Lieberman's name came up in connection with the African diamond trade. Yossi Kamisa, a retired officer who served in the Israel Police's counter-terrorism unit, filed a lawsuit against the diamond merchant Dan Gertler. Gertler had asked Kamisa to partner with him on a deal for a diamond mining franchise with the Democratic Republic of Congo that entailed the raising and training of the Congolese army in exchange for the diamond franchise. Kamisa claimed that Gertler and others breached their contract with him and he sued for NIS 2.5 million. The case was dismissed after Gertler agreed to pay Kamisa NIS1.4m.

 

In his court filings, Kamisa claimed that he was initially introduced to Gertler in 2000 by Lieberman who claimed to be Gertler's
silent partner. Kamisa alleged that at the time his deal with Gertler went sour, he was fired from his position as adviser to the Director-General of the National Infrastructures Ministry. The director-general at the time, Yair Maayan, was appointed by Lieberman, who served as national infrastructures minister in 2001-2002.

 

Today, Lieberman's proposal for governmental reform is cut to fit his own proportions. The proposal ignores the structural sources of the malfunction of the electoral system: the severe weakness of the Knesset and the disproportionate strength of the Supreme Court. His proposed reform relates almost exclusively to the executive branch of government. In calling for a presidential system of government, Lieberman notably limits his discussion to the job that he wishes to hold one day.

 

Lieberman argues that his plan must go through, and that getting it through justifies joining the Olmert government because today Israel's greatest problem is its governmental instability. This assertion is wrong for two reasons. First, the greatest deficit of Israel's governing system is not its instability, but its uneven checks and balances between the three arms of government. Second, Israel's most urgent problem today is not its malfunctioning political system, but its incompetent political leadership.

 

Lieberman further justifies his rush to join Olmert's government in spite of Olmert's refusal to give him a senior security portfolio, by claiming that his concern national security outweighs all other considerations. Yet his protestations are hardly convincing.

 

From Olmert's, Livni's, Peretz's and Halutz's refusal to take any responsibility for Israel's defeat in Lebanon this summer, and from their refusal to prepare Israel for the war that awaits it, they have proven themselves to be incompetent to fulfill their duties. As long as they remain in power, it doesn't matter who joins their coalition. Israel will not have leaders capable of defending it. Even if all the allegations against Lieberman prove groundless, even if his protestations of national responsibility are all true, his best intentions will be insufficient to turn the situation around.

 

While Lieberman's actions today will not help Israel, they will most certainly help Lieberman. Lieberman has made no attempt to hide his desire to see Israel Beiteinu replace the Likud as the leading right-wing party. But today he sees that opinion polls show the country wants for the Likud to form the next government.

 

Lieberman knows that if the Likud reconstitutes itself as the largest political party and leads the next governing coalition, his dream of transforming Israel Beiteinu into a major party and himself into the prime minister will be lost. Consequently, Lieberman is willing to join forces with Olmert to prolong the tenure of the current government in the hopes that by blocking new elections he will end the public's support for the Likud. According to this analysis, if Olmert remains prime minister for the next three years, the Likud will become irrelevant while Lieberman, a veteran government minister, would have a fair shot of becoming prime minister (or president).

 

Katsav's salacious legal troubles make great newspaper copy, it is true. It is also true that Israel is in dire need of a serious debate about our political system and constitutional order. But these issues cannot be the central issues on our nation's agenda today.

 

As our enemies prepare for a war which our leaders are incompetent to fight, rather than allow us to elect leaders capable of meeting the threats, Lieberman, Olmert, Livni, Peretz and Halutz are doing everything they can to convince us to ignore the dangers. Their efforts must not succeed. 

 

 

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.

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