‘I’m a Realist’

Avigdor Lieberman
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…

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