Coming attraction: Liberman the peacenik

If a militant nationalist wants to get elected prime minister of Israel, he has to repeat the word ‘peace’ over and over.  

Unlike a lot of other leftists in despair over Liberman’s acquittal on Wednesday, I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion he’s going to succeed Netanyahu as prime minister. I agree that he may do it, it’s definitely a possibility, but first he has a problem to overcome: as a candidate, he’s scary to a lot of Israelis, maybe most Israelis, especially women. On the “Eretz Nehederet”  (“Wonderful Country”) TV news satire, he’s portrayed as a KGB liquidator. The poker face, the dead eyes, the quiet monotony of his speech, combined with the violence in his background and the violence of his message — he’s an intimidating guy. Hardliners love him, of course, but the broad center of the electorate, which no one who wants to be prime minister can dare frighten off, has a sweet tooth when it comes to the national elections. They want a leader who’ll give them a little hope, a little reason to believe, a little vision of a brighter future. In a word, peace.

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If a militant nationalist wants to get elected prime minister of Israel, he has to repeat the word “peace” over and over, nonstop, until it’s linked in the voters’ mind with his name and image. The pro-war, anti-Arab stuff is all to the good, that’s necessary too, but in the campaign it has to be leavened with something soft and fuzzy and optimistic because the average Israeli — certainly the average Israeli woman —  doesn’t want to think of herself or himself  as an incorrigible hardass, and also doesn’t want to think that the way things are in this country now — with nothing on the horizon but the next war — is the way they’re going to be forever.

So when Bibi ran for prime minister in 1996, after doing nothing but slagging off Rabin, the Oslo Accords, Arafat and Arabs in general, what did he do to soften his image, to give folks a little hope for a respite from the old blood and fire? He came up with the slogan “secure peace,” and plastered it and broadcast it up and down the country — and it worked.

Ariel Sharon, when he ran for prime minister in 2001, had a much longer-standing, much darker reputation as a war-monger to overcome; the line he came up with was, “Only Sharon will bring peace,” and it, too, did the trick.

When Netanyahu regained the prime ministership in 2009, he used a new incantation  —  “economic peace.” All it  meant was trying to buy the Palestinians off, but what it meant didn’t matter, the point was that Bibi’s goal was “peace,” which softened his hard edge and made him palatable as a leader to the sentimental mainstream.

Liberman could pull this off, too, and at some point I expect he’s going to try to reinvent himself as a peacemaker. He’s already said he’s willing to part with land, even in Arab East Jerusalem, for an agreement with the Palestinians, which he’s said he wants for the sake of Jewish unity.

So his table is set. There will be no more “Only Liberman understands Arabic” ads like he ran in the 2009 campaign. Instead, I’d guess he’s going to play on his image of strength and stamina (which sure was juiced up by this acquittal) and come up with  something like — “Liberman: The strength to make peace.” Or — “Liberman: Because only the strong can make peace.” Or something along those lines. He’s got his work cut out for him, being a former Kach member and ex-barroom bouncer, a spouter of death threats against Arab Knesset members, and a serial defendant who seems to have an uncanny deterrent effect on prosecution witnesses. Can Liberman sell himself as a peacenik? Will centrist Israeli voters buy it? There’s no guarantee. But I wouldn’t put it past him, and I wouldn’t put it past them, either.