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Why I'm not afraid of Avigdor Liberman

My dear leftists, there’s really no reason to ask the last person to leave Israel to turn out the lights, as many of you have done over the last 48 hours. Most chances are that things will remain just as bad as they are – which is, in itself, hardly a reason to rejoice.

By Gilad Halpern

Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman (Photo by Activestills.org)

Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman (Photo by Activestills.org)

The pioneering 1970s rock band Kaveret (Hebrew for beehive) was groundbreaking in many respects. Other than their huge musical contribution, the band’s repertoire included comical, sometimes nonsensical songs that stood in stark contrast to the earnest, stuffy folk songs that had hitherto characterized Israeli music.

One famous example is a song called “The Grocery Store,” where an unnamed man expresses his love for a fellow shopper, whom he sees between the aisles searching for semolina and caraway bread. In Kaveret’s hugely successful concerts, the song was preceded by a sketch (the band members, especially Gidi Gov and Danny Sanderson, were also talented comedians) about a downtrodden boy, Yudokolis Lifshitz, who experiences an epiphany and realizes that opening a grocery store would be an apt redress for his plight.

Yudokolis’ despair was so great, that even as a young boy his parents tried to encourage him, unsuccessfully: “They told him: ‘Cheer up, son. Things could be a lot worse.'” And then the narrator adds: “So he did cheer up, and things indeed got a lot worse.”

Many Israeli leftists on Thursday, when Avigdor Liberman’s appointment as defense minister was confirmed, felt they were in Yudokolis’ shoes. Their general feeling was that the only thing missing in the hawkish, illiberal and flagrantly populist motley crew that is Netanyahu’s government was a cynical, authoritarian and divisive figure like Liberman, holding the most senior portfolio – second only to the PM – no less.

Liberman, who in the past threatened to bomb Egypt’s Aswan Dam and fire indiscriminately at Gaza until the Hamas government collapses, has now been given the authority to shape Israel’s security policy. All of this is pending the cabinet’s approval, of course – but that’s hardly grounds for reassurance, given that the other decision-makers are the equally belligerent far-right settler leader Naftali Bennett and the deeply suspicious and vulnerable Netanyahu, who knows full well that Liberman holds the key to the survival of his government.

However, similar things were said in 2009, when Liberman’s party clinched 15 seats (as opposed to the mere six he has today) that made it the third largest faction in the Knesset – bigger even than Labor. In fact, similar things were said in 1977, after the election victory of Likud’s Menachem Begin, a prime minister leftists today look back on wistfully – but that’s beside the point.

And the sky didn’t fall. Liberman’s shock victory ushered him into the Foreign Ministry, as a senior member of Netanyahu’s second government, a position he went on to hold for six years. During that time, he did mostly nothing. He was a persona non grata in most Western capitals, where Defense Minister Ehud Barak and later Justice Minister Tzipi Livni did most of Netanyahu’s bidding, while Liberman was left to nurture Israel’s relations with leaders of former Soviet countries, especially Vladimir Putin whom he has done his utmost to emulate. And most importantly, as Channel 10 journalist Raviv Drucker has shown, he didn’t follow up on a single pledge to his voters, confining himself to inflammatory rhetoric, the thing he does best.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, the only moderate centrist in Israel’s far-right government, came under fire for welcoming Liberman’s appointment, saying that he “will be judged by his actions.” Kahlon’s message is actually reassuring: If that is the case, there’s really no cause for alarm.

My dear leftists, there’s really no reason to ask the last person to leave Israel to turn out the lights, as many of you have done on Twitter over the last 48 hours. Most chances are that things will remain just as bad as they are – which is, in itself, hardly a reason to rejoice.

Already in 1849, the French essayist Alphonse Karr set the thumb rule of Israeli politics: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose – the more it changes, the more it remains the same. Forget Herzl – he knew what the Jewish state would be all about.

Gilad Halpern is a journalist and broadcaster, host of “The Tel Aviv Review – Ideas from Israel” podcast on TLV1 Radio.

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