The young waitress in the Tel Aviv hotel lobby can’t hide her excitement. The most controversial politician in Israel is here, ever impatient and attired in his trademark perfectly tailored suit. All eyes, in fact, are on Avigdor Lieberman, the new deputy prime minister and unabashed right-wing politician who has earned the world’s scorn, for, among many other things, his call to execute fellow Knesset members who dare to meet with members of the Palestinian group Hamas. Not to mention his call for Israeli air strikes against Iranian and Egyptian cities or his plan to revoke the citizenship of Israeli Arabs, whom he’d deport to a future Palestinian state.
As he sips a glass of red wine (he grimaces; it doesn’t meet his standards), the subject of this commotion acts as if he doesn’t hear the whispers or notice the stares. In over 12 years of following Lieberman’s political career for the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, I’ve noticed that he never flirts with crowds. It is hard to call Lieberman charismatic. A heavy-faced, bearded man, he still hasn’t lost his thick Russian accent and is far from a great orator. Yet somehow, Lieberman—whose current popularity is rivaled only by that of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—never fails to deliver what many Israelis want.
“There is no ‘new’ Middle East,” he tells me. Lieberman rejects outright the notion of a contained Israeli-Palestinian conflict. According to him, “whoever thinks so, is plain stupid. We face an existential threat. It’s really about the survival of the fittest, and with neighbors like Syria, Iraq and even Egypt, we have to be realistic. We are not, being Jewish. It is a genetic disease. When Hitler came to power, we chose to look the other way. That’s now the attitude toward [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad. There is no difference between him and Hitler, and we fail to understand it. That’s pathological behavior.”
In a world of polished, westernized Israeli politicians such as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Netanyahu, the 48-year-old Lieberman stands out. Any American notions of political correctness are absent from his vocabulary. “The leadership of Hamas needs to go to heaven,” he once quipped about the Palestinian Authority’s new governing party. “Heaven,” by the way, is the same response he gives when asked how he is doing, especially when things are looking bad for him.
As we talk, though, things are looking pretty good. Back in 2004, he was fired as transportation minister by then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for his opposition to the Gaza withdrawal. Today, he is the head of Israel Beiteinu (Israel is Our Home), a party he founded in 1999, which draws most of its support from Israel’s one million immigrants from the former Soviet Union. He has re-emerged as a strange hybrid of an Israeli version of Jean-Marie Le Pen (the infamous French extreme right-winger) and respectable statesman.
When Olmert’s centrist Kadima party failed to capture a majority in the elections last March and had to enter into a national coalition government with Labor, Lieberman was the big winner. Israel Beiteinu won 11 seats and Olmert, in need of political allies, was forced to invite Lieberman to join his cabinet, inventing a new portfolio for him called “minister of strategic affairs.” Lieberman actually had been eyeing the internal security portfolio as his price for joining Olmert’s coalition, but Attorney General Menachem Mazuz dashed that hope because of an ongoing investigation into corruption allegations against him.
The fact that, as strategic affairs minister, Lieberman is now in charge of drafting Israel’s post-Lebanon foreign policy makes his opponents, who’ve dubbed their nemesis “minister for threats,” nervous. But they’re even more uneasy about his ambition to become prime minister. Lieberman is frank about his hope to use his new post as a stepping-stone to take over Olmert’s. “Yes, that’s the plan,” he tells me. “Still, I’m not obsessed,” he says, immodestly adding, in case I haven’t noticed, “Do you know any other Israeli politician who can single-handedly obtain 11 seats in the Knesset?”
What made Lieberman’s role as Israel’s power-broker possible was not only Olmert’s need for a political ally but the leadership vacuum in Israel, observes Gad Barzilai, a political scientist from Tel Aviv University. “This is exactly what makes him so dangerous,” he says. “He’s the only one who offers a formula.”
Whether you call them pragmatic or deem them racist, the guidelines of that formula are simple. For years Lieberman has been preaching that the real threat to the future of Israel comes not from the Palestinians beyond the Green Line but from the million plus within the state of Israel who are full Israeli citizens. As he once put it, “If we want to stop the conflict, we must separate the two peoples. The main problem is the Israeli Arabs. I think separation has to include them. I am talking about a land swap as well as a population swap. This seems brutal and sounds brutal, but there is no other solution.”
Two years ago, with the help of like-minded colleagues, he designed a plan called “exchange of territory and population.” In practical terms, this means redefining the borders of Israel in a way that regions heavily populated by Israeli Arabs would be annexed to a future Palestinian state. In exchange, Israel would get to keep clusters of settlements and the so-called “demographic threat” posed by Israeli Arabs would be diminished. Israeli Arabs who no longer live within Israel would have their Israeli citizenship revoked. Those who remain would be asked to pledge an oath of loyalty and perform military or alternative national service (from which they are currently exempted) in order to keep their citizenship. The proposal has drawn international condemnation, but only one Israelcabinet minister—Labor’s Ophir Paz-Pines—stepped down to protest Lieberman’s appointment. All the others found pretexts to stick to their chairs.
Paz-Pines argues that Lieberman’s “racist declarations harm the democratic nature of Israel.” But whenever he is accused of being racist, which is often, Lieberman falls back on historical precedents to support his case. His favorite one is Cyprus, divided into Turkish and Greek sections after the 1974 war for the island’s control, forcing 160,000 people to flee to “their” side. To show his commitment to his plan, Lieberman says that if necessary, he’d be willing to evacuate his home in the West Bank settlement of Hanokdim.
Lieberman’s uncompromising approach may have something to do with his upbringing as an only child in an adamantly Jewish family in Kishinev, Moldova, then part of the U.S.S.R. “We all spoke Yiddish and breathed Israel,” he says. “My parents challenged everybody when they chose to speak Yiddish loudly, even on a crowded bus. It was a conscious manifestation of power. I spoke only Yiddish until the age of three. When I had to go to the hospital as an infant, I yelled ‘milch,’ asking for milk. Nobody understood me.”
He came of age in the ’70s, when “Jews were 25 percent of the population of Kishinev,” he continues. “We never tried to hide. Just the opposite. We were more affluent, better educated, and we showed it.” Provocation was for him a way of life. It still is. “Karl Marx said that every individual is the product of society. Probably, I am, too,” Lieberman says. “The Jews of Moldova have this no-nonsense streak. They are ‘doers,’ not idle philosophers. No wonder Meir Dizengoff, another Jew from Moldova, established Tel Aviv.”
In 1978, when he was 20, his family made aliyah. Having won first prize for a play he wrote as a student in Moldova titled Students, he dreamed of a literary career. But his debut on the public stage in Israel came as an activist in a radical right-wing students’ movement at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he studied international relations. Later, he served in the army and had a short, unhappy experience at an ulpan on a kibbutz. “I soon realized I hate this kolkhoz,” he says, using the Russian term for the hated Soviet collective farm. This seems like a strange statement coming from an urbane Soviet immigrant who has chosen to make his home in a small settlement in the Judean desert, and I ask about the discrepancy. “That’s different,” he explains. “Unlike the kibbutz, the settlement is organized individualism.”
Lieberman certainly doesn’t fit the stereotype of your typical settler in biblical sandals. Few settlers drive home in a black Mercedes SUV, wear stylish suits, smoke fine cigars and drink expensive wines. Lieberman does all of the above and has never been accepted as one of its own by the settler movement in spite of his ardent support for their cause. The Liebermans are also not your typical Soviet immigrants, most of whom avoid the settlements, preferring cities, and aren’t religious. While Lieberman, like his two sons, is secular, his wife Ella, also from Moldova, and their daughter Michal have become Orthodox.
When I first interviewed Lieberman for Ha’aretz in 1996, our readers were surprised to discover that he genuinely adores literature and theater. Even now as we talk, he quotes French writers and philosophers such as Prosper Mérimée, whose novella Carmen was famously staged as an opera by Georges Bizet. Lieberman deliberately lets it slip that Hollywood is reviewing a script he recently wrote but refuses to disclose any details.
His greatest love, however, is soccer. He’s a great fan of Jerusalem’s Beitar team, and when in a good mood, chooses to end the most serious conversation with a greeting to the team. This strange mixture of blunt politics and literate intelligence is exactly what may make him so attractive to both radical right-wingers and Russian intellectuals.
Members of the Russian-speaking community—the majority of whom split their votes among the country’s conservative parties—love Yvette, the Russian nickname Israelis know him by. This differentiates Lieberman from his long-time rival, Natan Sharansky, who may be a hero to George W. Bush but is no longer popular in Israel. The differences don’t stop there: Sharansky spent nine years in a Soviet jail for the Zionist cause and arrived in Israel as a hero. Lieberman worked his way to the top of the Israeli political scene from a job as a baggage handler at Ben-Gurion Airport. Luckily for Lieberman, a promotion to guard of a students’ club in Jerusalem was in store, courtesy of Tzahi Hanegbi, now a Knesset member in Olmert’s Kadima party. “I was his first political nomination,” says Lieberman sarcastically, referring to an ongoing investigation of a long list of Hanegbi’s political nominations as minister of internal security under Sharon. “I still don’t understand why my nomination has never been investigated,” he adds slyly.
Lieberman’s big break came in 1988, when he met Netanyahu, then Israel’s United Nations ambassador, and became his assistant. From then on, Lieberman’s rise was meteoric—from director-general of the Likud party in 1993 to director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office after Netanyahu won the prime minister’s seat in 1996. In the 1999 elections, Lieberman threw his own hat directly into the electoral ring with Beiteinu, which won just four Knesset seats. After this modest showing, he worked to broaden the party’s appeal beyond the Russian-speaking community by adopting a law-and-order platform, calling, for example, for mandatory sentencing. Today, it is the public figures he met in the law-and-order world—a former deputy head of the Israeli secret service and a former deputy chief of police—who provide Beiteinu with much-needed respectability. At the same time, Lieberman has stayed on message with his mantra of “Israel is our home—Palestine is theirs,” delighting his former Soviet compatriots. They respect his Putin-like strongman persona and couldn’t agree more with the comparison he draws between Russia’s handling of its Chechen problem and Israel’s response to Palestinian aggression. “I think that all olim from Russia have a better understanding of the situation; they know that all illusions of the left are empty slogans,” he says.
In spite of the law-and-order talk, Lieberman openly despises Israeli law-enforcement institutions. The feeling is generally mutual. Little is known about his business dealings, which include the importation of wood from the former Soviet Union to Israel, through which Lieberman made his fortune during breaks between government stints. The police anti-fraud squad is currently sorting through his private bank accounts and financial dealings in Cyprus, with possible charges in store. But Lieberman is unconcerned. “The more investigations, the more seats in the Knesset,” Lieberman once told me, quoting his long time friend, Aryeh Deri, the former leader of the Orthodox Shas party. The sentiment rings true among many of Lieberman’s fellow immigrants, who see the Israeli police as prejudiced against them.
Lieberman goes out of his way to project the image of a strong leader, but recently he’s attempted to make himself more appealing to the general public. He has shed 40 pounds, so that he looks less intimidating. During the last election campaign, Michal, his 22-year-old-old blonde daughter, was mobilized to soften the image of the father who was, she suggested, wrongfully demonized. She attended some political rallies, offering protective and loving statements. Lieberman’s face lights up for the only time during our interview when I mention Michal, who, following in her father’s footsteps, studies international relations at Hebrew University and leads a right-wing student movement in preparation for entering politics.
Over the years, the thick-skinned Lieberman has become accustomed to being a favorite target of Israeli satirists. A decade ago, he was the inspiration for a television character named “Vladimir,” a bullying civil servant. Recently, one of Israel’s most popular TV shows, A Wonderful Country, had an actor impersonating him demand to be greeted with “hi Lieberman,” accompanied by the infamous “heil Hitler” salute. The mock Lieberman also asked for “just 10 minutes” to wipe Tehran off the map. It is rare that the real Lieberman responds to these punches, but the Hitler comparison must have hit a nerve; Lieberman complains to me that the actors were “mean” and points out that his father was a World War II veteran who fought against the Nazis.
As we wrap up our interview, the waitress is still shooting glances at us, as are people at the neighboring tables. Lieberman ignores them and plunges into his next meeting, this one with former Israeli general Oren Shahor, a man known for his moderate views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As I leave, I reflect upon all of my conversations with Lieberman throughout the years and how his position in Israeli politics has changed. I find myself thinking of “Vladimir,” who was just plain vulgar and ridiculous, not of much consequence to anybody. The difference between Vladimir and Lieberman is unmistakable. The current persona is one to be taken seriously by the world.
Lily Galili is a senior features writer at the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, where she has written extensively on the country’s Russian speaking community. She was born in Poland.