How can Israel stoop so low?

Published in the Jewish Chronicle

There are shadows cast over Israel this autumn. The president is accused of rape; the Prime Minister is under investigation in a financial scandal; and the nation still reels from the shock of a summer war in Lebanon.

All that is bad enough, but there is another, larger shadow. It belongs to the hefty figure of Avigdor Lieberman, the Moldovan-born hard-rightist who this week took his place in Ehud Olmert?s coalition as deputy Prime Minister with responsibility for ?strategic threats.?

To its shame, the Israeli Labour party has not quit the government in protest but is staying put. This despite Lieberman?s espousal of policies that, if they came from the mouth of a European politician, would have Jews demanding a break in all diplomatic contact, if not a campaign of boycotts and sanctions.

Lieberman wishes to see hundreds of thousands of Israeli Arabs stripped of their citizenship, by allocating Arab towns in the Galilee area known as the Triangle to a Palestinian state. In return, Jewish settlements in the West Bank would formally become part of the state of Israel.

This land swap would not be done voluntarily. There would be no referendum of the Arabs of the Triangle, asking them whether they want to be citizens of a different country. (Polls show that even those who identify keenly as Palestinians would, overwhelmingly, prefer to remain citizens of Israel.)

The move would be imposed on them. It is not ethnic cleansing, in the sense of people being forced out of their homes at gunpoint, but it shares the same goal: to deny people the citizenship of their birth simply because they are from the wrong ethnic group.

That much is confirmed by Lieberman?s plan for those Israeli Arabs whose villages and towns are not in the Triangle. They will be forced to take loyalty tests, to prove that they deserve to retain their citizenship.

Plenty of us shudder if anyone in Britain so much as utters the words ?dual loyalties? in the context of Jews, let alone accuses us of having them. But Lieberman proposes that Israel?s non-Jews be denied citizenship unless they can swear their allegiance to the state of Israel as a Zionist Jewish state. It?s like every British Jew having to declare that Britain is a Christian country ? or else lose his or her basic rights.

That?s not all. Defenders of Israel against those who question its democratic credentials like to point to the clutch of Israeli Arabs who serve as members of the Knesset. (There were no black members of South Africa?s apartheid parliament, we note proudly.)

Except Lieberman is rather less keen on this advertisement for Israeli democracy. In May this year, he suggested that Israeli Arab politicians who do not hang up the bunting and dance the hora on Yom Ha?atzmaut, but instead mark Nakba day ? which commemorates what is, in the eyes of many Palestinians, the disaster of 1948 ? should be executed. The same fate should await those who have any contact with Hamas.

Yes, you read that right. Lieberman doesn?t simply think Israeli Arab MKs who represent the views of their constituents ? for that is what they are doing when they take up these positions ? should be barred from parliament, unconscionable though that would be. He wants them dead.

Yet this man is not some maverick, fringe fruitcake, ostracised by Israel?s political and media class, as the reviled Meir Kahane was 20 years ago. He is now Israel?s deputy Prime Minister.

We should remember our outrage when Joerg Haider took up a more junior position in the Austrian government in 2000. Though, as Akiva Eldar wrote in Ha?aretz this week, comparisons of Avigdor Lieberman to Haider actually do the Austrian nationalist an injustice.

?Even in his most fascist days,? wrote Eldar, ?[Haider] never called on Austria to rid itself of citizens who had been living in the country for generations. Also, Haider never suggested standing up legislators representing these citizens in front of a firing squad.?

That the Israeli Labour party has agreed to sit down with this bigot is a sign of how low that once-great

institution has plunged: since 2000, Labour has been in a state of moral and political confusion. They should have acted to oppose this man, who has ambitions to rule Israel as a president ? with Vladimir Putin, not George W Bush his model.

I cannot think of an Israeli politician who has posed a greater threat to that country?s standing as a democracy.

Israel?s Labour party has failed to do the right thing, but what about us, the Jewish diaspora? Will our leaders welcome this man, as if it was business as usual? Do we have some moral limits ? or will we tolerate anything at all, so long as it is clad in the flag of white and blue?