The reasons for the tension between these two democracies are too numerous to count and too deeply rooted to understand in their entirety. But the most obvious is probably that France, frequently an outspoken critic of Israel, is home to a left-wing that, as the voice of one of Europe’s largest Arab and Muslim populations, is historically anti-Zionist.
Israel, on the other hand, is, um, pro-Zionist.
And then there are the unsettling vignettes that have further tested the already strained relationship in recent years, such as when the late French Ambassador to the U.K. Daniel Bernard referred to Israel as that “shitty little country,” when eyebrows were raised in the French political establishment over President Nicolas Sarkozy’s part-Jewish heritage, and when, as recently as 2007, more than 7,000 French Jews requested asylum in the United States to escape the violent anti-Semitism they encountered in their home country.
Of course, all of this says nothing of the terrible treatment Jews have endured in France throughout history: They were expelled no fewer than three times during the Middle Ages, alienated during the public humiliation of the Dreyfus Affair, and handed over to the Nazis by the Vichy government during the German Occupation.
It should come as no surprise, then, that most Israelis have been up in arms ever since Sarkozy, the leader of a country historically hostile to Jews and currently critical of the Jewish state, demanded that their leader, the intrepid Benjamin Netanyahu, fire their Foreign Minister, the highly controversial Avigdor Leiberman. They have a point. After all, who is France to tell them—or, for that matter, anyone—what to do? For a president of one democracy to meddle in the internal affairs of another reeks of arrogance, especially—I’m sorry to say—French arrogance, the same sort of self-proclaimed moral superiority that characterizes the world’s stereotype of France.
But in this particular case, there is substance behind the arrogance, and Sarkozy is right. If Israel is ever to have any conclusive peace agreement with its neighbors—or even ease the tension that exists within its own borders, among its own people—Leiberman must go. No questions asked.
For this man to serve as the international face of Israel—a country already struggling to reform its image in the Middle East and the world—is nothing short of a disaster waiting to happen. On his very first day as Netanyahu’s Foreign Minister, Leiberman announced publicly that “those who want peace should prepare for war” and then went on to say that Israel was in no way bound to the agreements reached at the 2007 Israeli-Palestinian peace conference. I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of a better tone to set for the peace process: This way, the Palestinians will simply feel too irate even to notice the Israeli troops marching in to recapture the West Bank.
But it’s not just in dealing with its neighbors that Leiberman could potentially damage his country. His tour de force might just be his proposed plan to deal with Arabs who live within Israel’s borders and who are citizens of the state. Of course, one could argue that the most fundamentally dangerous thing about Leiberman is that he even has a proposal to deal with Israel’s Arab citizens in the first place, but the proposal itself, with its overtly racist content, takes the cake, hands down.
To rid Israel of the majority of the nearly one million Arabs living within its borders, Leiberman suggests returning the heavily Arab-populated areas in Israel to the Palestinian authorities in exchange for Israeli settlements in the West Bank, where he himself lives. This way, Israel can simply rid itself of the cultural diversity that has for so long made it an example to other nations faced with similar situations. And for those Arabs still brave enough to live in Israel after that, Leiberman has presented a loyalty oath, which would require every Israeli to accept Israel as a Jewish democratic state, to serve in the military for a certain period of time, and to accept absolutely the symbols of the state. Those who don’t sign the oath simply wouldn’t be able to vote, and the remaining Arab population of Israel would be downgraded from citizens to mere residents, disenfranchised in the Middle East’s only democracy.
Israel has expressed a desire for peace, most recently with Netanyahu’s (albeit conditional) acceptance of the idea of an autonomous Palestinian state. But how can it realistically expect to achieve any peace at all with a man like Lieberman in the all-too-important position of foreign minister?
It might be presumptuous of France to tell another country how to run its internal affairs, but the truth is that more world governments—i.e., the ones to whom Israel will actually listen—must join Sarkozy’s call, before the effects of one man and his tenure dash the efforts of an entire nation.
James K. McAuley ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Currier House.