Liberman: Citizenship annulment is a condition for peace

The foreign minister’s provocations may be damaging, but they create a clear and present danger when tied to actual policies.

Avigdor Liberman has come roaring back again. When the Israeli foreign minister returned to his post following a lengthy corruption investigation that ended in anti-climax of acquittal, some thought he had been chastened by time or political pragmatism and softened his firebrand style.

As if to cast aside those doubts, Liberman has given a stellar performance this week (and it’s only Thursday). He insisted that his party will oppose any Israeli-Palestinian agreement that does not include territorial and population swaps, as per his plan to excise a major swath of the Israeli citizenry who are Arab. He said that he would not agree to a single Palestinian refugee returning to Israel, which pretty well sinks the idea of even a symbolic number of returnees, as envisioned by most peace plans on the table since Camp David in 2000.

Palestinians commonly accuse Israel of creating new conditions for peace as a delaying tactic, such as Prime Minister Netanyahu’s demand that they recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Liberman’s statements this week make the land and population swaps no less than a hard condition for his party’s support. The Palestinian complaint is difficult to dismiss.

Liberman’s idea is anathema even to some well within his right-wing, nationalist camp.  Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar of Likud told Israeli television on Tuesday that he opposed the plan because it would harm the notion of citizenship and goes against the democratic values of the party. Responding to the criticism of the Left, Liberman snapped back on his Facebook page Wednesday:

…These same people who instead of celebrating independence day, mark the ‘Nakba Day,’ and wave black flags instead of Israeli flags, and in their rallies they wave flags of Nasrallah and Hamas and Hezbollah, these same exact people are now outraged by the intention that as part of a peace agreement that includes land and population swaps, they will become citizens of a Palestinian state. Suddenly, they are an integral part of the State of Israel, suddenly, Herzl is their national hero.

Reading this, one might imagine that all the roughly 1.6 million Arab-Palestinians of Israel do is pray for Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah (they don’t), or that they all identify first of all as Palestinians (in a survey I conducted in 2011, two-thirds nearly 60 percent do not cite “Palestinian” as their primary identity). One might think that Arabs have not been striving for full integration into Israeli economic, political and social life since 1948 (they have), or that they have advanced a secessionist agenda all these years (they have never). One might even think it’s legitimate to strip someone’s citizenship for expressing political views such as observing the Nakba.

Yet, the confrontational, bullying style is almost routine, a mainstay of Liberman’s persona. In one of his most infamous statements from over a decade ago, he entertained the idea of bombing Egypt’s Aswan dam. It was bluster and rhetoric, devoid of any actual policy implications. This is also the case with accusing the Palestinians of “diplomatic terrorism,” and claiming to be steadfastly against “land for peace.” In the previous Netanyahu/Likud-led government, he was ironically one of the stronger voices supporting the very notion of a two-state solution.

These provocations may be damaging, but they create a clear and present danger when tied to actual policies. Thus, his 2009 campaign slogan, “No loyalty, no citizenship!” referred to a very real battery of legislative initiatives, and originally included intentions to strip Arab citizens of their right to vote if they didn’t swear loyalty to Israel as a Jewish state. The idea was diluted but eventually turned into an amendment to Israel’s citizenship law that discriminates between Jewish and non-Jewish immigrants by forcing the latter to swear allegiance to the Jewish nature of the state.

If that case is any example, Liberman might very well be using the same tactic to promote his plan for forced citizenship annulment: ask for something outrageous, legitimize it through extreme rhetoric and make the debate about how to accommodate the basic egregious idea in seemingly less egregious form. Ariel Sharon may be going, but Liberman is back – and in terms of political and social influence, neither one ever really left.