Will Lieberman help or hinder peace prospects

The big political news out of Israel this week centers on the Olmert government’s new best friend: Avigdor Lieberman, whose right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party has joined the ruling coalition, which now totals 78 out of 120 seats.

This means Lieberman assumes a sensitive Cabinet post overseeing strategic affairs (including Israel’s response to the Iranian threat). To mollify the left, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will grant the Labor Party two new Cabinet posts.

It’s just another day of horse-trading in the Knesset.

But what does it mean to have Olmert bring into his Cabinet a man who has been criticized as a racist and warmonger?

In the past, Lieberman has proposed Israeli Arabs sign loyalty oaths to the state of Israel. He advocated transferring them to Palestinian territory. He opposed the Gaza withdrawal. Yet to join the Cabinet, he had to sign on to Olmert’s long-term commitment to West Bank withdrawal.

With those plans on ice ever since the Hamas electoral victory in January, Lieberman had nothing to lose by climbing aboard. Despite outcries from the left, only five Knesset members have so far signed a letter protesting the Lieberman appointment.

There was a time when just the thought of Ariel Sharon as Israel’s prime minister horrified left-of-center Jews everywhere. Today, whether or not one agrees with Sharon’s direction while in office, few would dispute he had become a great leader. Perhaps Lieberman will follow a similar path.

From our vantage point, we wonder whether the Lieberman appointment gives Olmert a freer hand to govern or opens the door to governmental paralysis. After all, a big tent can grow only so big before it collapses around its central pole. Time will tell.

It is unique to parliamentary government that deals must be made, that irreconcilable forces get along, if only for expediency’s sake. It has been ever so in Israel’s Knesset. Is it a perfect system? Of course not, but no political system can claim perfection. Does the term “hanging chad” ring a bell?

Israel needs to pool the best minds from across the political spectrum to solve its problems. Some voices, like Lieberman’s, will spark controversy. So be it. On one thing, all Jews and all Israelis agree: The Jewish state must survive and thrive.

We don’t want to turn a blind eye to Lieberman’s past positions, some of which we find troubling. But we do have that Sharon model to hold up, and given his political talents, it is certainly possible that Lieberman will rise to the challenge of working for the common good.