By: Meir Javedanfar
This week, the head of the Yisrael Beitenu party Avigdor Lieberman shocked the Knesset by declaring publicly that the Egyptian president could “go to hell.”
He made these remarks in a speech in the Israeli Knesset on Wednesday. His stated source of anger was the fact that many Israeli leaders had visited Egypt, but in return, Hosni Mubarak had been to Israel only once. Lieberman defined Israel’s behavior as “self-effacement”.
Israel does not have many friends in the Arab world. Egypt is one of the few friends it has and politicians should not be insulting its leader in such a manner. Especially not Mubarak. He has been instrumental in talks between Israel and Hamas, as well as the current talks between Fatah and Hamas over next year’s presidential elections in the Palestinian Authority. Olmert and Peres’ apology to President Mubarak were timely and justified.
Yisrael Beitenu is a semi powerful party in the Knesset. During the 2006 elections, it won 11 seats. Its inclusion in any coalition may be key to the formation of the next government.
Therefore while condemning Lieberman’s remarks, we should also look at his motivations.
There are reports that the Egyptian Army may be going on maneuvers in the Sinai. According to some analysts, some officials in Israel sees them as threatening. Lieberman most probably wants to capitalize on this and win votes in the upcoming elections on February 10th amongst the military and right wingers.
The other factor is that his supporters, who are mostly Russian Israelis, like to see a “strong leader” who is not afraid to speak his mind. Some believe that this part of the Russian mentality. They want an Israeli Putin and Lieberman is the closest thing they have.
It should also be noted that many Russian Israelis belong to the right, because a sizeable number live in the West Bank.
Also, during their persecution in the USSR as Jews, many Arab countries were supporting the Communist administration in Moscow. This has stayed with them.
There is also the Chechnya factor. Many Russian Israelis watch the news from back home. They see Israeli Arabs and Palestinians as Israel’s Chechen problem. They believe that Putin’s iron fist policy worked in Chechnya. Now they want Israel to do the same with Palestinians and Israeli Arabs, whom Lieberman and his supporters see as a fifth column.
Over the last 60 years, many Israelis have questioned why so many Arab countries focus on creating enemies, whereas instead they would serve their people better by focusing on their domestic challenges.
We could say the same about Mr Lieberman. What people of Israel need more than his verbal cockfights with Egypt and Israeli Arabs, is focus and solutions to local problems such as poverty, unemployment and corruption. These are far more threatening. And thats where Israeli voters would most probably want to see his “strength”.