Avigdor Lieberman: Israel’s new hard man
The ultra-right-wing tough-talking ex-bouncer could force his way into Israel’s government
A former nightclub bouncer who courts controversy through his ultra-right-wing views on how to deal with the Palestinians - and makes even the tough-talking Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu look like a pussycat - could find himself at the head of Israel's third largest political party after next Tuesday's general election.
The latest opinion polls suggest that a dramatic surge in support for Avigdor Lieberman will sweep his Yisrael Beiteinu faction past both the governing Kadima coalition and the historically dominant Labour party in the 120-seat Knesset. In that event, he would not hesitate to demand a senior cabinet post from Netanyahu, who seems almost certain to become Israel's next prime minister.
It is not hard to imagine how the Obama administration would react to that: the burly, bearded Lieberman has publicly advocated bombing Tehran to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, denounced the one million Arabs with Israeli citizenship as 'fifth columnists' and, in November 2006, called for the execution of any Knesset member who dared to meet with Hamas. "World War II ended with the Nuremberg trials," he said. "The heads of the Nazi regime, along with their collaborators, were executed. I hope this will be the fate of the collaborators in [the Knesset]."
Lieberman’s crude but effective appeal gave him a cabinet post under Kadima
It is barely a decade since Lieberman, who emigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union at the age of 20 and now lives on a West Bank settlement, founded Yisrael Beiteinu ("Israel our Home") and began to force his way up the political ladder. A fiery orator who still speaks Hebrew with a thick Russian accent, he cut his teeth as an implacable opponent of concessions to the Palestinians - an early campaign slogan was 'No Arabs, No Terror'. Like many a demagogue, he has no time for inquisitive journalists: at one of his rallies, a couple of muscular "stewards" left me with a few bruises for asking awkward questions.
Lieberman's crude but effective (some would say racist) appeal to extreme nationalist voters carried him into the Knesset and in 2006 he was given a key cabinet post under Kadima: last year he resigned in protest over peace talks with the Palestinian Authority.
The prospect of being out-flanked by someone even more uncompromising than himself seems to have spooked Netanyahu (known in Israel as 'Bibi'). In a recent speech, his urgent message was that "I need a big Likud (majority) in order to lead the country" (sub-text: don't vote for that lunatic Lieberman).
But as Bibi demonstrated during his previous term as prime minister between 1996-99, while he may have the right stuff for a right-wing Israeli leader - impeccable Zionist lineage and military service with an elite commando unit - he is not the most adroit or decisive of politicians. "He never reckoned on Avigdor coming up so fast in his rear view mirror," one Israeli analyst told The First Post, noting that this misjudgement was all the more embarrassing because Lieberman was once a senior aide of Bibi's.
More than 90% of the Israeli public approved of the Gaza operation
Like Netanyahu, Lieberman has criticised Kadima for calling an end to Israel's 22-day war in Gaza before Hamas was crushed, and ironically, while neither of these super-hawks was involved in the decision to launch the Gaza offensive, they have emerged as the war's major political beneficiaries. By contrast, Kadima's leader Tzippi Livni and her Labour Defence Minister Ehud Barak are looking increasingly like electoral underdogs, despite their desperate efforts to "out-tough" the opposition.
Some astute observers see in this the reflection of a profound shift in Israeli society: for all the heavy cost in innocent Palestinian lives, more than 90 per cent of the public approved of the Gaza operation. An Israeli woman journalist who has campaigned for years against Israel's treatment of the Palestinians told the Guardian: "I'm amazed how (the war) doesn't haunt me."
Back in March 2002, following a series of terrorist attacks on Israelis by Palestinians, Lieberman, in his first stint as a junior minister in the Knesset, proposed an ultimatum: "If it were up to me, I would notify the Palestinian Authority that tomorrow at 10 in the morning we would bomb all their places of business in Ramallah, for example." To which Foreign Minister Shimon Peres responded that excessive military measures could lead to accusations of war crimes.
Lieberman was ridiculed by many at the time, but the recent strategy against Hamas in Gaza shows just how far public opinion has moved in his direction.
Lieberman clearly believes that his star is on the rise again, observing not long ago that he felt he was ideally qualified to serve in the pivotal position of Defence Minister. That is unlikely to happen, but his mere presence in the next government would send an unwelcome message to Washington, where President Obama has urged all candidates in the election to commit to an "aggressive" search for a lasting peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.
That helps to explain why some of Netanyahu's inner circle are assiduously promoting the idea that Lieberman represents a dangerous loose cannon that could inflict serious damage to Israel's vital special relationship with Uncle Sam. ·
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