Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Robert Fisk: Why Avigdor Lieberman is the worst thing that could happen to the Middle East.

Pity the Palestinians. Robert Fisk reports that some of them are working under the illusion that the fact that Avigdor Lieberman - a man who "out-Sharons even Ariel Sharon" - has joined the Israeli cabinet means that the west will at last see, "the true face" of Israel.

They are kidding themselves.

Lieberman, a man who wants Israeli Arabs to take a loyalty test to Israel or face the loss of citizenship, indeed, a man who has specifically ruled out a two state solution, will not be judged in the same way that the west judges a Saddam or an Ahmadinejad, simply on the basis that Lieberman is an Israeli.

The argument will be made that only Lieberman is "tough enough" to make the peace and, by doing so, his extremism will be turned into a virtue, ignoring the fact that he is actually explicitly against a two state solution.

Robert Fisk:

This kind of self-delusion is a Middle East disease. The fact is that the Israeli Prime Minister-to-be has made it perfectly clear there will be no two-state solution; and he has planted a tree on Golan to show the Syrians they will not get it back. And now he's brought into the cabinet a man who sees even the Arabs of Israel as second-class citizens.

Lieberman's first visit to Washington will be a gem. AIPAC – posing as an Israeli lobby when in fact it works for the Likudists – will fight for him and Lady Hillary will have to greet him warmly at the State Department. Who knows, he might even suggest to her that she imposes a loyalty test for American minorities as well – which would mean demanding an oath of faithfulness from Barack himself. The horizon goes on forever.

In Egypt, Avigdor Lieberman will have a tough time. Hosni Mubarak can be a soft touch for the Americans but it was Lieberman who, complaining that the Egyptian President should visit Israel or "go to hell", deeply offended a man who has taken great risks in maintaining his country's peace with the Israeli state.

Egyptians have been outraged to read in their newspapers that Lieberman has talked of drowning Palestinians in the Dead Sea or executing Israeli Palestinians who talked to Hamas. Last night, a supporter of Lieberman appeared on Al Jazeera television to describe Hamas as "an anti-Semitic, barbarous organisation" – even though Israeli army officers spoke openly with this supposedly "barbarous" group both before and after the Oslo agreement.

But the growth of such an extremist administration in Israel and the hopeless response of the Obama administration to the so-called supporters of Israel who destroyed Freeman's career, can only be dangerous news for the Middle East. The Jeddah-based Arab News called the Freeman disaster "a grave defeat for US foreign policy". But while uttering all the usual platitudes, the Arab press has been playing up the pusillanimous remarks of US press secretary Robert Gibbs when asked why Obama was "standing mute" in the Freeman affair. "I've watched with great interest how people perceive different things about our policy and during the campaign about whether we were too close to one group or too close to the other. So I don't give a lot of thought to those." Asked for "straight answers", Gibbs said: "I gave you as straight a one as I can get."

The Palestinians need to understand that there is no such thing in the eyes of the west as an extremist Israeli, there are only "tough" Israelis, and they are always portrayed as "tough enough to make peace"; and this truism applies even if their every public utterance has denounced the very peace which we now claim that they will be seeking.

Obama folded on the appointment of Freeman, and he did so without making single public statement on the matter. I hope he did so because has a game plan; that he did so - and allowed Freeman to make the public utterances that he subsequently did - because he has his sights trained on a far away horizon, that he knows it is foolish to engage now and that he is keeping his heaviest gunfire for more important battles further down the road.

But, to be honest, this is all wishful thinking and is no more realistic than the Palestinians hoping that Lieberman's ascendancy to power will usher in some new period when the west will suddenly see the light.

I still have hope that Obama will treat this dispute more fairly than Bush did, but that's all it is; it's a hope.

I've seen nothing on the ground to justify that optimism. And certainly, contrary to Palestinian wishful thinking, I do not pretend to myself that the election of Lieberman will make one bit of difference one way or the other.

Click title for Fisk's article.

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