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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.)

Benjamin Netanyahu; drawing by John Springs

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

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