What accounts for Avigdor Lieberman’s meteoric rise?

Avigdor Lieberman, seen on Election Day, Feb. 10, 2009, has forged his popularity with a tell-it-like-it-is approach, regardless of political correctness. (Brian Hendler)

Avigdor Lieberman, seen on Election Day, Feb. 10, 2009, has forged his popularity with a tell-it-like-it-is approach, regardless of political correctness. (Brian Hendler)

NEWS ANALYSIS

JERUSALEM (JTA) — With Benjamin Netanyahu unable to take the steps necessary to draw Tzipi Livni into his government, the tough-talking Avigdor Lieberman is almost certain to be named foreign minister — and to emerge as the strongman of Israeli politics.

On Sunday, Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party became the prime minister-designate’s first official coalition partner.

The agreement gives Lieberman’s hawkish, mainly Russian-immigrant party no less than five ministries — foreign affairs, internal security, infrastructure, tourism and immigrant absorption — as well as Lieberman-approved candidates for justice minister, deputy foreign minister and chair of the Knesset Law, Constitution and Justice Committee.

Some analysts already are calling the emerging government the "Biberman administration" — a combination of Netanyahu’s nickname, Bibi, and Lieberman.

Who is Avigdor Lieberman, what is his political philosophy and how did one who holds such seemingly radical views — some have called them racist — become so powerful?

Lieberman came to Israel in 1978 from Moldova, in the former Soviet Union, at the age of 20. After a brief stint in Meir Kahane’s overtly racist Kach movement, Lieberman joined the Likud Party, hitching himself to Netanyahu’s rising star in the late 1980s. In 1993 he served as the architect of Netanyahu’s successful campaign for the Likud leadership, for which Lieberman was rewarded with the post of party CEO.

When Netanyahu became prime minister in 1996, Lieberman was named director general of the Prime Minister’s Office. About two years later, under pressure from party veterans who disparagingly called him "KGB" and "Rasputin," Lieberman was forced to resign.

In 1999, he left Likud to found Yisrael Beiteinu, then a hawkish immigrants’ rights party. In 2000 he linked up with the far-right Moledet and Tekumah parties to form a radical right-wing Knesset bloc.

The turning point in Lieberman’s political career came in 2004, when he broke away from Moledet and Tekuma and, to the surprise of many, declared his support for the two-state solution — Israel and a Palestinian state living side by side.

Lieberman, however, took the idea of population separation a step further, calling for Israel’s borders to be redrawn to exclude Israeli Arab towns near the West Bank. Those towns would become part of Palestine, while Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank would become part of Israel.

Further refining his notion of the Jewish state, Lieberman later called for a mandatory loyalty oath for all citizens. The measure is aimed at stripping of their citizenship rights Israeli Arabs who refuse to express fealty to the Jewish state. In Lieberman’s vision, those who refuse to take the loyalty oath would be allowed to maintain their permanent residency in Israel but would lose national voting rights.

Many Israeli Arabs and Jews have denounced Lieberman’s two key proposals as racist. Lieberman says his measures would ensure a Jewish majority in Israel and counter the threat posed by what many in Israel view as a potential fifth column: increasingly radical Israeli Arabs who identify with Israel’s worst enemies.

Lieberman also calls for strengthening executive power in Israel through government reform. He advocates a system that in an emergency allows the president to override Knesset legislation. Some critics see the idea as the thin end of a wedge that could lead to dictatorship in Israel.

Lieberman’s rise has been meteoric. In 1999, the newly established Yisrael Beiteinu won four Knesset seats, with 86,153 votes. By March 2006, with Likud severely weakened following Ariel Sharon’s breakaway to form Kadima, the party won 11 Knesset seats, with 281,880 votes, making Lieberman a serious player on the national stage.

Later that year, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert helped legitimize Lieberman by making him minister in charge of strategic threats. One Labor minister, Ophir Pines-Paz, resigned in protest, declaring that Lieberman himself posed a strategic threat.

In February of this year, Lieberman increased his party’s Knesset share to 15 seats, winning 394,577 votes and beating out Labor to make Yisrael Beiteinu Israel’s third-largest political party.

Lieberman’s popularity is based on the cultivation of his image as a strongman who tells it like it is irrespective of political correctness. This goes down well not only with the no-nonsense, mainly hard-line Russian immigrant community that is Yisrael Beiteinu’s base, but also with increasing numbers of longtime Israelis.

Lieberman is especially popular among students and first-time voters. With Israel facing threats from a nuclear Iran, a well-armed Hezbollah in the North and Hamas in Gaza, he has been able to capitalize on deep-seated Israeli fears and insecurities.

His tough stance on loyalty struck a chord with voters as Israeli Jewish resentment ran high at Israeli Arab support for Hezbollah and Hamas in the 2006 and 2009 wars. And with his combination of pragmatism and toughness, Lieberman seems to offer clear-cut solutions to Israel’s most fundamental strategic problems.

Lieberman, with his acceptance of the two-state solution, more than any other Israeli politician seems to be setting a post-occupation, right-wing agenda: more powerful government, a weaker Supreme Court, loyalty tests for the Arab minority — in short, less democracy.

The immediate problems Lieberman poses for Israel are in the realms of public opinion and international relations. He seems to play into the hands of those who seek to make Israel an international pariah.

Aside from his proposals on Israeli Arabs, Lieberman has raised hackles for suggesting that Israel bomb Tehran and Egypt’s Aswan Dam, telling Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to "go to hell" and volunteering to drown Hamas prisoners in the Dead Sea.

In the weeks since Israel’s election, the feedback from ambassadors and foreign diplomats in Israel has been strongly negative toward Lieberman.

Complicating matters further, Lieberman is under investigation for fraud, breach of trust and money laundering, mainly by way of a company run by his daughter Michal.

Given all of Lieberman’s baggage, Netanyahu would much prefer to have Livni as foreign minister, and he’s still angling for a broad-based national unity coalition with Livni’s centrist Kadima Party as a linchpin. But with Netanyahu unwilling to support negotiations with the Palestinians on a two-state solution, Livni has turned him down flat.

So Netanyahu has turned to the controversial Lieberman.

However, Netanyahu’s agreement specifically makes provision for changes in his ministerial appointments if Livni changes her mind and Kadima joins the coalition. Furthermore, Lieberman failed to have loyalty oaths or his presidential proposal included in the new government guidelines.

But with Lieberman as foreign minister, he will be in his most prominent role yet.

In 2006, Lieberman declared that he aimed "to become the ruling party within two elections” — that means the next time round. Given Lieberman’s trajectory, it doesn’t appear impossible.

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