Lieberman, though, had his own twist: He proposed that Israel keep its largest West Bank settlements—and cede some of its own territory near the West Bank boundary, areas populated by Arabs who are Israeli citizens and voters. Initially, he spoke of “transferring” Arab citizens from elsewhere in Israel to the new Palestinian state.
“I am definitely speaking of exchanging populations and territory simultaneously, because there is no other solution,” Lieberman said from the Knesset podium in June 2004. From the left-wing benches came constant, angry catcalls.
“You’re like Stalin, and your transfer is like Stalin’s!” shouted the Laborite Yuli Tamir.
Lieberman struggled to return to his prepared text, citing the division of Cyprus into Greek and Turkish sectors as a model. “In the last two decades,” he said, “populations have been transferred in Central Europe … for instance in the Balkans.”
The heckling grew.
“I suggest to the left that it go to a democratic country like Syria,” Lieberman said.
“You go! What chutzpah! Who are you at all?” answered another heckler, Avshalom Vilan. As a kibbutz member, Vilan is part of an Israeli gentry whose fortunes have faded like those of the antebellum plantation owners in Faulkner’s novels. His gibe suggested that Lieberman was beyond the pale socially as well as politically. On other occasions, facing Arab hecklers in the Knesset, Lieberman has caught fire as an orator, shouting and slamming the podium. This time he looked rattled.
Lieberman, though, has stopped speaking of “transfer.” Instead, his platform in last year’s election called for conditioning citizenship on a loyalty oath to the state, the flag, and the national anthem. The requirement would apply to “every person reaching adulthood,” Yisrael Beitenu’s director-general, Faina Kirshenbaum, stressed when I spoke with her. Israel’s flag, with its Jewish star, and its anthem describing the “Jewish soul stirring,” have long spurred opposition from Israeli Arabs. Under Lieberman’s plan, anyone declining the oath would remain a resident but could not vote. Just as his partition plan would draw a sharp geographic border between Jews and Arabs, his citizenship bill would draw a thick black border in Israeli society between those who belong to the polity and those who do not. The Arabs would be outside; the immigrants would be inside. “Such a law is customary in advanced Western countries, chief among them the United States of America,” the party platform claims. “I’d say we’re more a party of the center” than of the right, Kirshenbaum told me. “We’re pragmatic.”
Surprisingly, that view is accepted by Roman Bronfman, who for a decade was the most prominent politician on the dovish side of the Russian-speaking community. Originally from Ukraine, Bronfman came to Israel in 1980 and earned his doctorate in Russian history. After leaving the Knesset last year, he opened an investment firm. His office is on the 25th floor of a Tel Aviv high-rise and looks out over the country’s most Westernized city toward the Mediterranean. The magazines in the waiting room are all in Hebrew, not Russian; the coffee offered by the receptionist is espresso, the beverage of communion for the Israeli business class. The office proclaims that Bronfman belongs. Lieberman, says Bronfman, “understood that his right-wing stance made him—in Russian the word is izgoi—an outcast,” and has been trying to fit into the new political consensus that wants territorial division and peace. But “he’s a racist,” Bronfman adds. “He has accepted ending the conflict with Palestinians but has opened a front against the Israeli Arabs.”
The citizenship bill is just one piece of Lieberman’s plan for remaking Israel. Last year, his party submitted a bill it said would provide a more stable government. Under the proposed law, the prime minister could appoint ministers without parliamentary approval. If the Knesset approved a state of emergency, the cabinet could enact emergency regulations temporarily superseding laws—and if “the prime minister sees that the cabinet cannot be convened, and there is a pressing and vital need for emergency regulations, he may enact them.” That system, surely, could eliminate much parliamentary dithering.