When Lieberman moved into Likud politics after college in the late 1980s, he met Netanyahu, who had just returned to Israel after more than a decade in the United States as a student, businessman, and deputy chief of mission in the Israeli embassy. Netanyahu, brother of the Entebbe hero Jonathan and son of the revisionist scholar Benzion, had very strong support in Likud.
In 1995, Netanyahu, newly elected as prime minister, hired Lieberman as his director-general, the equivalent of chief of staff. Lieberman ran the office—and the party—as a personal fiefdom, tightly controlling access to Netanyahu and punishing disloyalty. An Israeli television show that mocks politicians satirized him as a bully called Vladimir; some called him Netanyahu’s Rasputin. “Yvet was the most powerful figure inside Bibi’s office,” I was told by Shlomit Canaan, who was director of the Immigrant Ministry of Absorption at the time. She uses Lieberman’s original Russian name, Yvet, which all his friends know him by.
Canaan, a member of Peace Now and Meretz, formed an unlikely friendship with Lieberman. She describes him as a figure shaped by his insecurities, his estrangement from his Moldovan homeland, and his interest in history. (Trying to explain to Canaan contemporary Russia’s close relationship with Iran, for example, he cited Leo Tolstoy’s novel Hadji Murad, about the 1850s war in the Caucasus in which the two nations were allies.) Canaan says, “He has the feeling, and again it comes from history, that the world is us and them. For him, the Arabs really threaten our existence here.”
Lieberman broke from Netanyahu in 1997, partly because of Netanyahu’s deepening ties to Natan Sharansky, the celebrated dissident émigré from Ukraine. In 1995 Sharansky had started his own political party, Yisrael BaAliyah (Israel on the Rise), appealing to the Russian immigrant vote. “He felt that Bibi was relying more and more on Sharansky for his links to the Russian people,” Canaan told me. Lieberman went into business, importing lumber and other raw materials from Moldova and other former Soviet republics and reportedly earning a fortune. But two years later, he returned to politics; becoming the cofounder of Yisrael Beitenu.
Lieberman’s entry into Israeli politics coincided with dramatic demographic changes in Israel. Between 1990 and 1999, nearly one million immigrants from the former Soviet Union poured into the country—400,000 immediately after the Soviet Union’s collapse, then an average of 60,000 a year for the next eight years. They settled mostly in towns in the Israeli periphery, near Gaza and the Lebanese border—places like Ashdod, Ashkelon, and Bersheba—where housing and land sold cheap.
Yair Tzaban, who was minister of absorption in a Labor government during much of this period, told me that the biggest challenge was finding suitable employment for the large numbers of highly educated, skilled workers. “Israel had 12,000 physicians. The immigrants brought us 14,000 more,” Tzaban said. “Israel had 28,000 engineers; the Russians brought us almost 90,000. We had 8,000 immigrant musicians. What to do? We established thirty-five orchestras, turned one thousand into music teachers, and for the first time we sent music teachers to new cities like Qiryat Shemona to teach music to pupils who had never heard about Beethoven, Bach, Tchaikovsky.”
Lieberman, like Sharansky, offered these immigrants a political voice: he supported a hard line in negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, favored limiting the political power of religious Jews, struck a combative pose, and gave newly arrived, dislocated Russians a feeling of belonging. “The [Russian immigrant] middle class were well integrated economically, but we were outside of politics,” I was told by Alex Magidov, thirty-seven, an engineer from Moldova who joined Yisrael Beitenu in 1999.
That year the party won four seats in the Knesset, and Magidov became a city councillor in Rishon Lezion, which now has as many immigrants from Russia and the Arab world as it does native-born Israelis. The party took seven seats in 2003 in an alliance of convenience with a right-wing religious party, then twelve seats standing alone in the March 2006 election. In late 2006, Ehud Olmert made Lieberman his minister for strategic affairs, responsible for coordinating Israel’s response to dangers, including the Iranian nuclear program and Hezbollah, Iran’s ally in Lebanon. Lieberman’s rise paralleled Sharansky’s political eclipse; Sharansky won just two seats in the January 2003 election, and his party was absorbed by Likud two months later. Sharansky, despite his heroic record, failed to break past his natural constituency of Russian immigrants, didn’t articulate a clear political agenda, made little mark on the ministries he headed, and then tied himself to the settler movement, which did not have much appeal for the Russian constituency.
In 2004, Lieberman began to put forward his most controversial proposal: arguing that the Arab Israeli population could by 2050 grow to the point where Arabs would outnumber Jews and doom the Jewish state, he called for the “transferral” of large numbers of Israeli Arabs to the sovereignty of the Palestinian Authority—stripping one third of Israel’s Arabs of their Israeli citizenship. Under the Lieberman Plan, as it has been called, areas along the so-called Green Line with high Arab populations, such as the central Wadi Ara region, including the large Arab-Israeli town of Umm al Fahm, would become Palestinian. In exchange, Israel would get to keep roughly the same amount of land in the West Bank.
Yossi Beilin calls this a form of “ethnic cleansing,” and says that it is both immoral and illegal. “Lieberman is saying, ‘I know I cannot transfer you with trains across the border—so I’m compromising. I’m being “pragmatic.” I’m just going to strip you of your citizenship.’ But it’s totally against Israeli law.” As for the Arab Israelis, some 90 percent of them object to Lieberman’s proposal, according to a recent Haifa University poll.
But Lieberman and his Yisrael Beitenu supporters claim that the proposed swap has a neat symmetry: Israel’s Arabs would join with their ethnic kin in building a Palestinian state; Israel would become a nearly pure Jewish state, and would keep its hold on large parts of its biblical territory. They point to violent clashes that broke out in Arab-Israeli towns in 2000, in the early days of the second Palestinian intifada, and the refusal of many Arab Israelis to serve in the Israel Defense Forces, maintaining that Arab Israelis have more solidarity with their Palestinian brethren than loyalty to the Israeli state. “When different ethnic groups are mashed together, it is a recipe for violence and clashes,” I was told by Danny Ayalon, the former ambassador to the US, who joined Yisrael Beitenu last year and was rewarded with the post of deputy foreign minister. “[We say] let’s do separation in the most humane and logical way.” Israeli-Arab citizens find the plan neither humane nor logical.
I visited the town of Ashdod on a rainy weekday afternoon in November. Built on sand dunes along the Mediterranean, thirty miles north of Gaza, Ashdod was a small town dominated by Sephardic immigrants before Soviet émigrés began pouring in during the 1990s. Today it’s a city of about 200,000—more than one third from the former Soviet Union—with rows ofF concrete apartment houses sprawling along wide avenues. Outside a community center that offers courses for immigrants including Russian folk dancing and Hebrew, I met a couple in their mid-twenties: Misha from Uzbekistan and Natasha from Siberia. Both had closely followed the growth of Yisrael Beitenu and Lieberman’s political rise. But the couple had different views on his success.
“Lieberman became really strong in the time of this recent war,” Natasha told me. During the Israeli invasion of Gaza last year, about twenty Qassam rockets fired by Hamas landed in Ashdod and one woman—Natasha’s neighbor—was killed. Lieberman’s strong support for the invasion and push for the disqualification of two Israeli-Arab parties that opposed the war from standing in the election helped his popularity in Israel. “For the first time we are examining the boundary between loyalty and disloyalty,” he told their representatives. “We’ll deal with you like we dealt with Hamas.”
“We are on the front lines here,” Misha told me. “We need someone strong who will fight for our survival. Yvet can do that.” He went on to explain that he found reassuring Lieberman’s push for loyalty oaths, for total separation from the Israeli-Arab population, and for a purely Jewish state.
Natasha grimaced. Lieberman’s politics made her uneasy. “I don’t like his ideas,” she told me. “I don’t believe in fanaticism”—especially his plans for ethnic cleansing and the forcible stripping of citizenship from those who refuse to declare their loyalty to the state.
The front lines of Israel’s battle with the Palestinians have shifted in recent months to East Jerusalem and the West Bank, where the settlement issue continues to keep tensions high. Nokdim, where Lieberman lives, is a fenced-off hilltop enclave surrounded by Palestinian villages at the edge of the Judean desert, a stone’s throw from the ancient fortress of Herodion. The settlement was founded as a mixed secular-religious community in the early 1980s by a group of Russian Zionists, and Lieberman and his wife, who is religious, moved here a couple of years later. “Yvet was looking for a peaceful place, a refuge,” Shlomit Canaan told me. The peace has been shattered from time to time, mostly notably during the second intifada: two young Israeli boys were beaten to death in a cave not far from the settlement in 2001, and three adult residents were killed in drive-by shootings by snipers from the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the armed wing of Fatah.
The demographics have shifted as well: Russians today make up only twenty of the 180 families. A mix of secular and religious Jews has been drawn here by ideological fervor, love of desert places, and the short commute to Jerusalem. (The trip got easier in 2007, when the “Lieberman Bypass Road” was completed, skirting Palestinian villages and shortening the drive to fifteen minutes. Lieberman, who commutes to work in an armored car on this road, did not raise funds for it or participate in any way in its construction, I was told by the settlers, to avoid any accusations of impropriety.)
Lately though, Lieberman has made some of his admirers here nervous. Last February he stated in an interview with The Washington Post that he would willingly vacate Nokdim in return for a permanent peace agreement with the Palestinians and that he was committed to the “road map” diplomatic process, designed to achieve a two-state solution. “People were stirred up by what he said,” I was told by Michal Kupinsky, thirty-two, a New York–born religious settler, as we drove past Lieberman’s house at the top of the settlement—a two-story stone structure half hidden by a guard booth staffed by security men around the clock. “There are people here who would fight, like they did in Gush Katif.” She was referring to the settlement in Gaza where many physically resisted the army’s attempts to remove them during Israel’s 2005 unilateral withdrawal. Michal is looking forward to the day when Israel begins issuing building permits again, and Nokdim can expand toward the Palestinian villages visible on surrounding ridges. “The dream,” she said, gazing at a cluster of caravan homes that provide temporary accommodation to a new group of settlers, “is to have 2,500 houses here.”
Lieberman has sought to reassure Israel’s settlers that there’s no chance of a peace agreement for years, if not decades. “He is saying that in a perfect world, where you have peace, he won’t be the last one to stand on the settlement in Nokdim,” I was told by one of Lieberman’s closest aides. “But that’s a long way off.” Nonetheless the non-Russian settlers, I was told, have mixed feelings about Lieberman. His first loyalty, many of them feel, is to the Russian émigrés, who make up an urban, secular group. Lily Galili, a reporter for Haaretz who has covered Lieberman’s career for two decades, says that many of these non-Russian settlers think that “the day they evacuate us from the West Bank, we’ll be fighting, and he’ll be making business deals with Moldova and the Ukraine. He will abandon us.”
In fact, Lieberman may be obliged to abandon his own ministry in the not-so-distant future. Last August, the Israeli police recommended charging him with a long list of crim- inal violations including bribe-taking, money-laundering, and interfering with judicial procedures. Much of the case is based on a whistleblower’s discovery of Cyprus bank statements on the desk of a Knesset colleague in August 2005. The documents allegedly showed suspicious transfers of $500,000 to Lieberman’s associates, including the account of a consulting firm run by his daughter, Michal. Israel’s state attorney said that a decision on whether to indict Lieberman is likely to come within the next few months.
But Israel’s top politicians have often been able to drag out criminal inquiries, and Lieberman is likely to resist calls for his resignation. In August, however, he told journalists that if Attorney General Menahem Mazuz “decides to indict me after hearing me out, I will step down as foreign minister and within the next four or five months I will quit as a member of parliament.” In the meantime, he will almost certainly remain the most polarizing member of the Netanyahu government, using his office to advance the view that Arabs are enemies who should be edged out of Israel and continuously confronted with Israeli power.
I asked Lieberman about his prediction that a permanent peace with the Palestinians would not be possible for many years—at least the same amount of time that has passed from the failed Oslo Agreement of 1993 until the present. He shrugged and turned to the papers on his desk. “I’m a realist,” he said. As I talked to people in Jerusalem, Ashdod, and other cities and towns in Israel in November, I was struck by how Lieberman’s interpretation of reality seemed to find an ever more receptive audience.
—February 24, 2010