Monday, March 16, 2009

The Other Lieberman

Recent events have given me reason to be pessimistic once again about Israel and Iran (not that the pessimism ever really went anywhere). During the presidential campaign, then-Senator Biden came under fire for saying that he believes an international crisis will test President Obama within his first few months in office. If I had to predict an event fitting that description (and these predictions are somewhere between usually and always wrong), this would be it:

As the US moves to the left in its approach to the Middle East, Israel has taken a hard-right turn. Are they calculating that the Obama Administration, preoccupied with fixing the global economy, will avoid straining the US-Israel alliance? Maybe, and if the appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as Israel's chief diplomat is any indication, they're already testing the waters.

Think of Avigdor as a militant-fascist-racist version of our own Senator Joe. Don't believe me? First, consider this quote: "If it were up to me I would notify the Palestinian Authority that tomorrow at ten in the morning we would bomb all their places of business in [commercial center] Ramallah, for example." Then, consider frequent chants of "Death to Arabs" that break out at his political rallies. He showcased his fundamental human decency when he punched a 12 year-old boy in the face who'd been in a fight with his son. He is currently embroiled in a corruption investigation that ties him to both local and foreign business interests.

He is, put simply, a thug. Like a hockey game late in the third period with nothing left to play for, a thug is brought in to send a message, not to score points. With Lieberman as the face of Israeli foreign policy, said foreign policy will be one that picks a lot of fights with little regard for the consequences.

If the United States managed to alienate the known universe with the George W. Bush's decidedly less bellicose rhetoric, Lieberman's ascension (and Likud's broader victories in the recent parliamentary elections) implies something genuinely frightening. With a daunting domestic agenda, any hint of backpeddling in the US-Israeli alliance is politically untenable for the Obama administration. Yet Israel still feels just as threatened, and they believe the relationship between the Iranian threat and time is exponential. So why not strike when America is most preoccupied and its opposition will be least vehement?

Figures like Lieberman deny the potential for diplomacy to mollify Iran. Their ideology denies the utility of waiting for Obama's efforts to work. It'd be like a devout Catholic who said, "I'm still waiting for the Messiah, just in case it isn't Jesus."

There is compelling reason to believe Israel wants to stifle diplomacy before it has the chance to materialize. Even modest success of US efforts would undermine Israel's insistence that Iran is a rogue state that can't be reasoned with.

Look for the Iranian elections, scheduled for this June, to be very important. Chances are good that current President and resident boogeyman Mahmoud Ahmedinejad will win an election wrought with improprieties. Israel may seize the moment to escalate its rhetoric, or worse.

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