x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Israel finds no rebuttal to Russian immigrant rhetoric

The Soviet Union was the first to recognise Israel. But will its immigrant exiles scupper a chance at peace?

Snap quiz: Which was the first country to recognise Israel at the United Nations? No, not the United States, nor any other western country. It was, in fact, the Soviet Union.

Back then, the surrounding Arab countries were ruled by western-aligned monarchies. The Zionist movement was led by professed socialists who had been fighting Britain and Joseph Stalin imagined that backing Israel would help expand Moscow's influence at the West's expense. It was Moscow's Czech satellite that provided key weapons shipments to give Israel a military edge over its enemies in the war of 1948. The flirtation was brief, however; Israel's leaders took help where they could get it, but saw their interests aligned with the West, while Arab Nasserite nationalism offered a more natural ally for the Soviets.

Flash forward six decades, and Israeli liberals are warning that Stalin's heirs have a kindred spirit in the gruff anti-Western posturing and authoritarian domestic political instincts of an Israeli foreign minister raised in the Soviet Union.

Avigdor Lieberman, once a nightclub bouncer in the Soviet Republic of Moldova, was given the post of foreign minister in Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet after he emerged from the last election as leader of the third largest party in the Knesset. As foreign minister, he has barely disguised his contempt for the US-led peace process and any inclination on his own government's part to make concessions to the US or international public opinion.

Mr Lieberman has taken it upon himself to play the role of Mr Netanyahu's id, expressing the deeper desires and drives the prime minister must both assuage and restrain.

When Mr Lieberman, at the UN General Assembly, derides negotiations with the Palestinians, pouring scorn on the Obama administration's goal of moving rapidly to a two-state peace and insisting that the citizenship of Israel's Arab population will ultimately have to be revoked, Mr Netanyahu simply says the speech had "not been coordinated" with him. He declined to publicly break with Mr Lieberman's ideas.

Both men, and their parties, are acolytes of Vladimir Jabotinsky, the Russian-Jewish leader who had warned in the 1930s that Arabs would only accept the existence of a Jewish state when they had been crushed and humiliated by military force. Jabotinsky dismissed as dangerously naive the idea of Israel negotiating peace with the Arabs.

It's often forgotten amid the anxiety over Mr Lieberman, that the foreign minister is under investigation by Israel's state attorney over alleged financial irregularities that could lead to criminal charges. But even if he were removed from office as a result, Mr Lieberman is not an isolated phenomenon: he represents a significant section of Israeli society who see him as an honest man willing to speak truths where Mr Netanyahu prefers to dissemble.

The former US president Bill Clinton caused a minor furore late last year when he blamed the failure of the peace process on the fact that the million Russians who immigrated to Israel in the 1990s and are now one fifth of Israel's Jewish population tend to oppose any concessions to the Palestinians. There are, of course, a number of other factors at work, and Russians are neither universally right wing nor are they the only constituency to have moved radically to the right. Indeed, Yisrael Beiteinu retains a Russian core, but that constituted only 60 per cent of its vote in the last election; the rest were drawn from the wider Israeli middle class.

But Clinton is not entirely wrong. Yisrael Beiteinu's emergence is based on Russian immigrant distrust for the peace process. The immigrants who fled the economic rubble of the Soviet Union's collapse never integrated easily into Israeli society. Almost one in three were not Jewish by rabbinical definitions, but Israel's citizenship laws define Jewishness by the same criteria as the Nuremberg Laws - of having had one Jewish grandparent. Many of those didn't even identify as Jewish; they were simply economic refugees looking for a better life. The most extreme example was the gang of Israeli neo-Nazis arrested two years ago, who were children of immigrants from the Soviet bloc. They had been conducting violent attacks on Orthodox Jews and Arabs.

But the more common Russian political view is an aggressive Jewish nationalism. The community retains a high level of cultural autonomy, with its own Russian-language newspapers, where the conversation is often unabashedly right-wing and racist, sometimes violently so - and also deeply antagonistic towards Israel's political left, regarded as cowards, imbeciles or traitors.

And there's also a strong element of contempt for the West. The writer Alexander Maistrovoy responded to Bill Clinton's comments by saying that Russian Israelis don't want "the kind of peace which Bill Clinton imposed on Serbs in Kosovo".

For these Russians, Israel has neither moral nor strategic obligation to relinquish control over any territory it has conquered in wars with its Arab neighbours. Embracing the victimology of Serbian nationalism underscores an endorsement of a pan-Slavic contempt for western "weakness" in the face of Muslim hostility. "The main value of western civilisation," wrote Maistrovoy, "is the absence of any values."

The outlook of many Russian-Israelis is shaped by experience. They had never known the occupied territories as anything but Israeli, and see no reason for Israel to give them up. Economic factors pushed many to make their homes in West Bank settlements. Their social integration into their adopted country was troubled, creating an alienation from the political establishment conducting the peace process. And then the suicide terror of the second intifada hardened their opposition.

What Bill Clinton was pointing out was simply that Israel is not the same country it was two decades ago when the peace process began. Back then, it was assumed that a two-state peace agreement would be embraced by a majority of Israeli voters. Today, that's no longer a safe bet. To the extent that the peace process is dependent on the consent of an Israeli electorate moving steadily closer to the outlook of many of its Russian immigrants, it could remain stalled for years to come.

Tony Karon is a New York-based analyst. Find him on Twitter @Tony Karon