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I’m a Realist’

Avigdor Lieberman; drawing by Pancho

On a Sunday afternoon last November, Avigdor Lieberman, the most controversial man in Israeli politics, stood behind his desk at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, fresh from an encounter with American diplomacy. Hillary Clinton had just passed through town, and Lieberman and Defense Minister Ehud Barak had met with her at the David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem before her one-on-one talk with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Since joining Netanyahu’s cabinet in March 2009, Lieberman—notorious for his provocative statements in support of Israeli settlements, disdain for the peace process, and hostility toward Arabs—had not had much to do with his American counterpart, according to Israeli press reports. But as foreign minister, he has at least a formal part in US diplomatic visits.

The message Clinton brought was conciliatory. The Obama administration was dropping its demand for a settlement freeze and accepting Israel’s counteroffer for a moratorium on new construction permits and “restraint” on further growth. (In fact there has since been new construction in the West Bank, and Arabs have been driven out of parts of East Jerusalem to make way for Israeli settlements.) Clinton’s new position was a flat-out rejection of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’s demand that peace negotiations could start again only if Israel halted all construction. Lieberman pronounced himself satisfied. “She’s starting to see things from our point of view,” he told me.

A fifty-one-year-old émigré from Moldova, Lieberman is a burly man with a neatly trimmed, gray-flecked beard, and he speaks English with a thick Russian accent; when he raises his voice, as he has been known to do, and flashes his teeth, he can be intimidating, but the day I met him he was somber, reflective, even mild. I asked him whether he thought that the expansion of settlements would make it difficult, if not impossible, to achieve a breakthrough in peace talks. Israel is now building 2,500 houses in the West Bank, according to Peace Now, and many more are planned: “The issue isn’t settlements,” he insisted. “That’s just an excuse.”

The issue, he said, was simple: until the Arab states confront “radicals” in their midst, negotiations would go nowhere. “Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] has to deal with Hamas,” Lieberman said. “[Saad] Hariri in Lebanon has Hezbollah. Mubarak has the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s the biggest problem in the Middle East.”

Lieberman’s critics have called him a racist and an obstacle to peace. “Lieberman hates the Arabs, he doesn’t trust anybody in this world. He’s really a prototype of a very intelligent Archie Bunker,” says Yossi Beilin, founder and a former chairman of the left-wing Meretz party, who held public debates with Lieberman a decade ago. Gideon Levy, a columnist for the newspaper Haaretz, calls him “the ugly face of Israel. He is a mouthpiece for many, many Israelis—right-wing, nationalistic, militaristic, and aggressive.”

Lieberman has called Arab members of the Knesset a “fifth column” and demanded that they take a loyalty oath, and surrender their citizenship if they refuse. He has proposed forced transfers of Arab-Israeli villages and towns to the Palestinian Authority to rid Israel of its non-Jewish citizens. In October 2008, on the Knesset floor, he told Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that he could “go to hell” for refusing to visit Israel. He has threatened to prosecute Arabs who observe the Nakba—the day commemorating Israeli victory and Arab defeat and flight in the 1948 war.

Supporters of Lieberman say that he is a clear-eyed pragmatist who sees that Middle Eastern societies and governments have been hijacked by extremists. The second intifada, the Lebanon war, the rise of Hamas, and the Gaza invasion have strengthened his political appeal. Lieberman spoke out against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, warning that it would endanger peripheral Israeli cities near Gaza such as Ashdod and Ashkelon, and Hamas’s subsequent takeover of Gaza and firing of Qassam rockets at Israel made his warnings look prescient. He also strongly supported the bombardment of Gaza and the subsequent invasion, which left Hamas in power and opened Israel to charges of war crimes—but has largely quelled the Qassams.

In the last election, in February 2009, Labor, the party of Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, the Oslo accords, and reconciliation, won thirteen seats, down from nineteen in March 2006. Yisrael Beitenu, the Israeli nationalist party that Lieberman founded in 1999 and whose name means “Israel Is Our Home,” won fifteen seats, the third-biggest total after Netanyahu’s Likud and Tzipi Livni’s centrist Kadima party. Two thirds of that support came from Russian immigrants, one third from a broad spectrum of Likudniks—including former interior minister Uzi Landau—disillusioned leftists, and secular Jews who say they like Lieberman’s non- ideological approach to West Bank settlements. For example, Lieberman has said that he is willing to let go of East Jerusalem in an eventual peace agreement, if and when such an agreement occurs; according to Mikhail Philippov, a researcher of the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank, “He doesn’t want the Arabs inside Israel. He calls this a pragmatic approach.” As a secular Jew, Lieberman is also willing to defy the power of Israel’s orthodox rabbis. He supports allowing civil marriages and easing the laws of conversion to Judaism.

Following the impressive showing of Lieberman’s party in the February 2009 election, Netanyahu and Livni—both of whom have ties to Lieberman that go back fifteen years—competed for his support. “The last thing that Bibi Netanyahu needed was somebody like him as foreign minister,” I was told by Yossi Beilin. “But he wanted to be prime minister, and there was a moment when he was afraid that Lieberman might join with Livni.” Livni—who got her start in politics in the mid-1990s, when Lieberman, then a member of Likud, brought her into that party—hesitated about handing Lieberman a top cabinet position. Lieberman made a deal with Likud, giving Netanyahu enough Knesset votes to form a government.

The Arab world wants nothing to do with Lieberman: an annual summit conference of forty-two European Union and Mediterranean states, scheduled for November, was abruptly canceled when the foreign ministers of several Arab countries, including Egypt, refused to sit at the same table with him. He criticized Sweden for failing to censure a private newspaper that had accused Israeli soldiers of trafficking in Palestinian body parts. (Sweden’s foreign minister cited the paper’s freedom of expression.) Lieberman described the failure of the Norwegian representative to walk out on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech at the United Nations in September as part of a pattern of Norwegian anti-Semitism. In January, at a business conference, Lieberman suggested that Israel would never return the Golan Heights, which have been occupied since 1967, and warned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that, if he attacked Israel, “he will lose the war and…neither he nor his family will remain in power.” Netanyahu’s spokesman was forced to issue a statement that Israel’s policy was one of “unconditional” peace talks with Syria.

Noting that he has embarrassed Israel abroad and referred to the Palestinian Authority as “a bunch of terrorists,” the newspaper Haaretz has called for his resignation. Gideon Levy, the Haaretz columnist, told me, “Lieberman is doing everything possible to push everyone into the corner and isolate Israel.” Far more damaging to Lieberman and to the prestige of his office, he has been all but left out of substantive US–Israeli diplomacy. “When Bibi talks business, he brings Ehud Barak, whom the Americans find likable,” I was told by Yaron Dekel, a political commentator for Israel’s public television station, Channel One. “He doesn’t bring the guy who makes life difficult.”

In October Lieberman distributed a secret memo to his staff calling for less dependence on the United States. The memo, which was leaked to the Jerusalem Post, proposed three main reforms in the Foreign Ministry: strengthening relations with states in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe and the Balkans, and Central and Southeast Asia—parts of the world that had been “neglected” by previous governments; lowering hopes of a breakthrough in peace talks (the office, according to the memo, had mockingly become known as the “Ministry of Palestinian Affairs”); and creating a “zero-tolerance” policy for anti-Semitic expressions around the world.

Lieberman now spends much of his time shuttling to diplomatic backwaters like East Africa, South America, and Kazakhstan. In October, for example, Lieberman talked in Astana with Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, about increasing oil imports and boosting trade, and signed a “consultation agreement” to discuss security issues on a regular basis. One of his aides told me, “It’s different when you meet a foreign minister. It can help with United Nations votes.” Not always. Despite Lieberman’s visits to Russia and a reported pledge of support from his Russian counterpart, Russia voted in favor of adopting the UN’s Goldstone Report, which cited Israel for war crimes in Gaza. Lieberman was said to be furious. And Lieberman’s July trip to Brazil—part of a ten-day Latin American junket meant to counter growing Iranian influence in the region—began badly when a top official of the ruling Workers’ Party called the foreign minister “a racist and a fascist” during an interview.

Yet there are few indications that Netanyahu is growing fed up with Lieberman. Despite a possible indictment hanging over Lieberman’s head in connection with decade-old bribery and money-laundering allegations, Netanyahu is reportedly fearful of losing the support of his Russian immigrant–dominated constituency, which accounted for ten of the fifteen seats that Yisrael Beitenu won in the 2009 election—or about 280,000 votes. According to Israeli journalists and political analysts, Lieberman wields greatest influence in meetings of Netanyahu’s seven-man security cabinet, in which he maintains the hard line, arguing against resuming peace talks and pushing to lift the settlement moratorium. (In December, according to Haaretz, Lieberman told a meeting of settlers in Ariel that “in ten months, we will be building again full force.”)

Lieberman’s childhood was troubled by anti-Semitism. He was born in Soviet Moldova in 1958, the only child of a Red Army veteran who spent ten years in Siberian exile during Stalin’s rule. “We’d get on a bus, packed with people, all gentiles…and every head turned toward us,” he told the Israeli-American journalist Gershom Gorenberg in 2007. “I was a kid—three, four years old—and I had the feeling we were different, something else completely, and that everyone was cursing to himself—’You Zhids, go to Israel! What are you doing here?’—and [my parents] would speak Yiddish!” His parents dreamed of emigration to Israel, and got their chance in 1978, when Avigdor, born Yvet, was a twenty-year-old engineering student. The family settled into a small apartment in Jaffa—a mixed Arab-Jewish city just south of Tel Aviv, and an entry point for thousands of immigrants from both the Soviet Union and the Middle East.

Lieberman switched his field of study from engineering to international relations at Hebrew University, but his real interest was campus politics. According to the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv, while working as a nightclub bouncer to make ends meet, he flirted with Kach, the radical right-wing movement founded by Rabbi Meir Kahane. Then he joined a right-wing student organization, Kastel, that clashed often with a pro-Palestinian, mixed Jewish-Arab group. Azmi Bishara, an Arab Christian who would later become a prominent member of the Knesset, was one of his enemies. Ma’ariv reported that Lieberman once picked up a trash can and hurled it at Bishara’s head, narrowly missing him. (In 2007, Bishara fled into exile after being accused of treason for allegedly giving Hezbollah information about intended targets of Israeli missiles during the 2006 Lebanon war. Bishara denies the allegations. In Lieberman’s claim that the Arabs in Israel make up a “fifth column,” Bishara became Exhibit A.)

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