How extreme is Avigdor Lieberman?
Compared to what?
The question begs an answer in light of my recent note ("He's a gangster, but he's our gangster") a couple of the responses accusing me and Israel of harboring political extremists, and the most recent tragedy in the country that is arguably several times more extreme in its culture and its leadership than anything Israeli.
No doubt that Avigdor Lieberman has an image problem with the worthies of the West. He goes beyond the politically correct assertions that the terrorism is not Islam by speaking explicitly about Arab violence, and he throws the charge of double standards in the face of officials who claim to be Israel's friends. His styles of speech and body language add to the image. Years under investigation by Israel's police and prosecutors do not help him. If there's smoke, there must be fire.
It would take more paint than at my disposal to whitewash Avigdor Lieberman. It is a legitimate question to ask how a man under investigation and not welcome in western capitals made it to the office of Foreign Minister, even while was he kept away from high profile activities. In the most important places, Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and Lieberman's deputy Dan Ayalon did the serious work of representation and negotiations.
The answers lie in the politics of Israel's democracy, Lieberman's standing with a million-strong ethnic group that comprises some 15 percent of the total population, and his leadership of the country's #3 political party by virtue of its seats in the Knesset, that became #2 with erosions in Kadima.
Not all politics is pretty, here or anywhere else. However, questions about Lieberman's morality in the heavy handed way he speaks, controls his party, or deals with money is, arguably, no worse than Richard Nixon's Watergate manipulations, the sexual extremism of John Kennedy and Bill Clinton, or the rise to riches of Lyndon Johnson.
Lieberman has resigned as Foreign Minister. He--and many others--are saying that the accusation which survived the disputes among state prosecutors is not likely to produce a verdict of guilty, or a guilty verdict that comes along with a designation of shame (equivalent to a felony conviction in the US) that would preclude his serving as a Minister for some years. He remains a candidate for re-election to the Knesset, which is lawful, but perhaps not overly wise for the Prime Minister's political party that now includes Lieberman's. Pressures may increase on Lieberman to resign from the list and prove even more than he has to date that he is pragmatic and plays by the informal as well as the formal rules.
My own best examples of political extremism come not from Avigdor Lieberman or anywhere else in Israel but from the United States.
Leaving aside the juicy but relatively harmless activities of Nixon, Kennedy, Johnson, and Clinton, a good place to start is the violence associated with George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Bush's invasion of Iraq, partly under the heading of bringing democracy to a country with a cruel but strong and stable leadership may have produced, to date, more than one million deaths. Bush's invasion of Afghanistan, escalated by Obama's surge, is minor league in comparison, due to the smaller and less complex population, and limited wealth worth fighting about. However, the aspirations announced to reform that country are extreme in their bombast and foolishness, if not in the number of deaths produced.
Obama's major claim as an extremist rests on that speech he gave in Cairo. It earned him a Nobel Peace Prize, but that burst of Scandanavian political correctness should not blunt the realities. To the extent that his call for democracy and equality in the most prominent of Muslim capitals contributed to Arab spring, Obama's deserves at least partial credit for more than 50,000 deaths. Most of those have come in Libya and Syria. The best cases, i.e., Tunisia and Egypt, have seen moderate and secular dictatorships pass into the hands of Islamic opponents of what we in the West call enlightenment, i.e., secularism, humanism, and democracy.
We have all heard that "violence is as American as apple pie." Rap Brown set himself off from the mainstream by saying "cherry pie."
The tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut points once again to an extremism that stains whatever the United States has contributed to the world.
The United States is the word leader in the private possession of firearms per capita. There are almost as many guns as people. The US is not a world leader in murder. That designation goes to one or another country of the Third World, especially those of Central America and Africa. Countries there have murder rates in the range of 40 to 90 per 100,000 population. The US rate is a "modest" 4.2. However, that makes it the most violent by far of Western democracies. Israel's rate is 2.1; the figure for northern and western Europe is less than 2 murders per 100,000 population.
Traditions of the Wild West, a problematic amendment to the Constitution, and the NRA keep American politicians commiserating with the families of victims, and unable to bring the country into line with more civilized places. The Supreme Court could, theoretically, read the Second Amendment to assure the existence of the National Guard, but not private gun ownership. The chances of reform via 3/4 of state legislatures approving a new amendment are not worth discussing. Even a favorable decision by the Supreme Court would not assure subsequent cooperation from Congress in writing detailed legislation. And if all those chips fell unexpectedly into place, the task of implementing a ban against private handguns similar to those in Western Europe, and cleaning the country of almost 300 million weapons, defies imagination.
It may be convenient to accuse Avigdor Lieberman of one or another variety of extremism. To the extent that the accusation is appropriate, his "extremism" in official capacity has been associated with utterances and financial manipulations. The criminal charge that did not produce an indictment may qualify him for membership in the large group of politicians who have used questionable ways to raise campaign contributions. His colleagues may be accused of extremism by appointing a tarnished personality to the distinguished position of Foreign Minister.
Compared to the extremism of the deaths attributed to American adventurism in Iraq and Afghanistan, applauding Arab spring as the onset of democracy, and the all too frequent stories of mass murder by marginal individuals using legally-obtained weapons, Lieberman's activity is a caricature of modesty.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Posted by Ira Sharkansky at December 16, 2012 06:12 AM