Lieberman did not parachute into the UN building from the skies of New York. He was sent by the Prime Minister, who apparently preferred not to know what he would say. His appearance at the General Assembly amounted to a “favor” to Netanyahu, who preferred not to speak there, given the international pressures on him to continue the settlement freeze. Netanyahu’s refusal to yield on this point shows that he doesn’t think peace is possible. The voice is the voice of Lieberman, but the hands are the hands of Netanyahu. Construction resumed on schedule, September 26, after a ten-month freeze, with Netanyahu bidding the settlers to keep the celebrations low key.
Lieberman’s speech prepared the ground for the excuses that Israel would deliver after the failure of the talks: the rest of the world is not being realistic; the Arabs aren’t ready for peace; the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Iran, Lebanon and even between Palestinian factions are not because of Israel. For years now Israel’s right wing has declared that only when those conflicts are ended, and only when peace settles over the rest of our region, will the rest of the world be justified in demanding that Israel agree to terms with the Palestinians. And because solutions to those other conflicts will take several decades at least, peace in our part of the Middle East is not presently an option. It is pointless, therefore, to demand a settlement freeze.
Israel’s refusal to continue the freeze is based on the true claim that ever since the signing of the Oslo Accords, the talks with the Palestinians have taken place in tandem with construction. The PA (Palestinian Authority) has never before conditioned talks on a freeze, for it understood that such a demand would be a non-starter. Netanyahu’s ten-month freeze was an anomaly, a response to American pressure.
While the dispute about the freeze oozes sluggishly on, the settlements interrupt the contiguity of the would-be Palestinian state. In effect, Washington’s demand on Israel is for a concrete commitment. The Americans want a pledge from Netanyahu to reach an agreement on borders within three months. How much can be built in three months, after all? And who will build in areas slated to fall under Palestinian sovereignty? Netanyahu’s refusal to continue the freeze is connected, then, to his government’s decision not to commit to a timetable on borders.
When the Israeli Foreign Minister denies any chance of reaching a peace agreement, it is fair to assume that he knows he has backing—and not just from Netanyahu. Indeed Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who was Prime Minister at Camp David in July 2000, was first to bruit the notion that there is “no partner.” Labor’s entry into Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition was not just the result of Barak’s ambition to become defense minister at any price, but was based on the concept that “there’s no one to talk to.”
Opposition leader Tzipi Livni is not very different. During her time as Foreign Secretary in the Olmert government, she worked merely toward an agreement that would “sit on the shelf” until reality caught up, for the Palestinians, she thought, weren’t ready for a state. The shelf agreement could become operational in a few decades (to use Lieberman’s expression).
The dominant trend of Israel’s present government is best expressed in the following words from Lieberman’s speech: “The final agreement between Israel and the Palestinians must be based on exchanges of territories and populations. This does not mean an arrangement for moving populations about, but the establishment of borders that will better reflect demographic reality.” According to this plan, Umm al-Fahem will become part of the Palestinian state, and in return Israel will get the areas in the West Bank that are populated by Jews. Since the arrangement will take effect only decades from now, construction in the settlements will expand meanwhile, taking up what remains of the West Bank. In Umm al-Fahem, on the contrary, as in all the areas destined for exchange, there is to be no investment or development, because in any case it is slated to become part of Palestine.
We wouldn’t quote from the visionary ranting of Lieberman if we thought it was totally out of sync with reality. Sadly, there is a grain of truth. When he talks about the transfer of territory with population, he bases his words on the existing reality in which the Arab citizens of Israel live. The discrimination that is targeted against them, the hostility, the neglect in all areas—from inferior education to lack of industrial development—and the utter absence of cultural life, create fertile soil for racists like Lieberman. Chaim Herzog, Israel’s UN Representative in 1975, is remembered for standing at the podium of the General Assembly, holding a UN resolution equating Zionism with racism, and ripping it to shreds. Today, 35 years later, Lieberman stands at that podium and, in the name of the State of Israel, declares his country’s desire to be rid of its Arab citizens.
Lieberman’s “truth” goes to prove that the reason for the ongoing conflict is not the Palestinian refusal to accept the Jewish State, but Israel’s unwillingness to accept the existence of a Palestinian people and its right to a state of its own. Two intifadas and several wars have led the Israeli public and its main political parties to forgo the vision of Greater Israel. Netanyahu, in his Bar Ilan speech, declared in favor of a two-state solution, but his words have remained mere air: neither he nor any other Israeli leader is ready to bear the consequences of that idea, namely to command the settlers to leave their homes and their dreams.
Both Lieberman and Netanyahu are deceiving themselves if they think they have “several decades” in which to lead the world by the nose. In the State of Israel plus the Territories it occupies, the demographic balance is already close to 50-50. Decades from now (to take just one of many scenarios), the Arabs will be a clear majority, and Israel as a Jewish State will lose any claim to democracy. Will the nations tolerate such a situation, supporting a Jewish state at any price? Within Israel, will the youth go to war—and will their parents be willing to send them to war—for the sake of defending apartheid? Such is the inheritance that Lieberman bequeaths to the coming generations. Such is the significance of his “truth.”