Avigdor Lieberman is probably the most controversial politician in Israel today. Over the years, the ultra-nationalist has threatened to bomb Egypt and drop a nuclear bomb on Gaza. He told Arab parliamentarians they should be executed as traitors and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that he could "go to hell".
But as part of a coalition deal with the Likud party’s Benjamin Netanyahu, Lieberman is now Israel’s Foreign Minister and in the mainstream of Israeli politics.
As Lieberman was officially being sworn into his position in the chamber of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, I found Arab-Israeli politician Dr Jamal Zehalka angrily stalking the halls outside. "Avigdor Lieberman is a known fascist and racist!" he exclaimed.
Comparing Lieberman to the far-right Austrian former politician Jorg Haider, who was boycotted by the EU, Zehalka is demanding a similar international boycott of Lieberman. "Mr Lieberman is more extreme than Mr Haider. What will happen now? Is he going to get international legitimacy?"
Lieberman’s rise to the top has been phenomenal. His party Yisrael Beitenu or "Israel is Our Home" was once considered a fringe party on the far right and mainly attracted votes from Russian immigrants like Lieberman himself. But after February’s election it is now the third largest party in Israel, surpassing even the traditionally popular Labor party.
"He spouts off. He talks about bombing this or that and levelling this and turning this into dust. But it works. This is how he gets his votes. That’s pure demagoguery!" says Jerusalem Post columnist Larry Derfner. "He speaks to people’s anger. He vents people’s feelings and their desire for revenge, to get back at the people they consider their Arab oppressors and that’s why they vote for him".
Lieberman makes no effort to keep his views regarding Arabs hidden; rather they are openly touted as the cornerstone of Yisrael Beitenu’s policy. The party’s election campaign in February focussed on a proposal to strip those people who do not swear loyalty to a Jewish state of their citizenship, a policy clearly aimed at the 20 per cent of Israeli citizens who are Muslim Arabs. The party’s official slogan during the election was "Only Lieberman understands Arabic".
A series of political advertisements for the party featured pictures of Arab-Israeli MPs while another played footage of Arab-Israeli citizens protesting against Israel’s war on Gaza. Over these images, a voiceover in Hebrew declares "No Loyalty! No citizenship! Only Lieberman understands Arabic".
The ads were broadcast daily into Israeli homes before the election, and for Derfner, the message was clear. "It’s a euphemism for saying the only way to deal with Arabs is by force," he explains. "It’s like saying only Lieberman knows how to deal with the Arabs. You don’t talk to Arabs; you show them who is boss."
Avigdor Lieberman’s life has been filled with its own discrimination and prejudice. Born in 1958 in Kishinev (now Chisinau, the capital of Moldova), Lieberman lived his first 20 years under Soviet rule. His father was held for seven years in one of Stalin’s Siberian Gulags and a young Avigdor was reportedly rejected from studying international law at Kiev University because he was Jewish.
In 1978, the family moved to Israel and it was not long after, as a student at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, that Lieberman is alleged to have formed one of his most controversial associations, with the since outlawed Kach Party.
An extreme far-right fundamentalist Jewish party, Kach was outlawed by Israeli authorities in 1988 for inciting racism. The party has been involved in a number of violent attacks that resulted in the deaths of Palestinians. The United States and the European Union have both listed Kach as a terrorist organisation.
Shortly before this year’s election, the Israeli media interviewed former Kach leaders who claimed that Lieberman had been a member of their movement for a short period in 1979. Former Kach secretary general Yossi Dayan also said that he had issued Lieberman with a party membership card during this period. "I don’t recall to what extent he was active in the movement, but if he denies [this], I am ready to testify in any forum that Lieberman was indeed a member for a short amount of time," he told Ha’aretz in February. Avigdor Lieberman’s response was to deny any association with Kach.
Known for loathing reporters, Lieberman refused my many requests for an interview. Instead, I headed into the Palestinian territory of the West Bank to seek answers about the man.
For the last 27 years, Avigdor Lieberman has lived in the settlement of Noqdim, which he helped to establish in 1982. Located south of the Palestinian town of Bethlehem, Noqdim is what is known as an "ideological" settlement. In comparison to settlements closer to Jerusalem such as Maale Adumim that are regarded as "economic" settlements, "ideological" settlements are established in order to claim the land as part of Israel. And like all Israeli settlements in the West Bank, Avigdor Lieberman’s home is considered by the United Nations to be illegal.
Perched high on a hillside, Noqdim looks down upon the nearby Arab village of Um Salmuna. Razor wire and radar-detecting cameras surround the settlement; a young man with a machine gun meets me at the gate and checks my ID before I’m allowed inside.
I meet the settlement’s chief Rabbi, Yaron Durrani, who tells me that "Lieberman was among the first to come and settle in this area in temporary dwellings, in tents, in caravans, in very difficult conditions". The Rabbi has known Lieberman for over 10 years and he’s proud the politician hasn’t upped and moved to Jerusalem, instead commuting to and from Noqdim everyday. "He’s a nice man," he assures me. "His image in the media is not correct."
With Lieberman now in such a powerful position, Rabbi Durrani hopes that the Government will help settlements like Noqdim expand and grow. "I hope that very soon it will be possible for Jews to live wherever they want. Particularly when we talk about Israel’s territories. I really hope that all these absurd notions of giving up parts of the homeland in exchange for an imaginary peace will be perceived as unrealistic."
Down the road, I meet Susie and Isaac Cohan, a couple with three young children who have lived in Noqdim for over 10 years. "It’s a wonderful place to live", Susie says. "Nice and quiet, with lots of room for the kids to play."
They take me to see Lieberman’s heavily guarded house which stands in the centre of the settlement. On the way, Susie explains why she thinks Lieberman is becoming increasingly popular in Israel: "Unlike most people in politics, he says what he thinks, and that’s what I personally really like. He’s not afraid of anybody."
Isaac believes Israelis approve of Lieberman’s approach because they are fed up with the peace process. Lieberman, he argues, is perceived as a hardline negotiator who will finally "get tough" with the Arabs. "All these years after all these negotiations, and willingness to give up land, and willingness to give everything, we didn’t get anything back for it," he tells me.
"I think that’s what’s [been]missing in the last years [is that]nobody was proud enough to say ‘we’re Israeli; that’s how we are’. We don’t have to be nice all the time to all the people. We are here because we have the right to be here," he says. "Nobody is doing us a favour by [allowing the]Jews [to stay]in Israel. We have the right to be here and we have to stand for it," Isaac says.
Rabbi Durrani doesn’t completely reject the idea of continuing peace talks, but says they should only take place under certain predetermined conditions. "I hope there will be peace talks," he says thoughtfully. "But on an entirely different basis. Where the Arabs will clearly see that this is a Jewish state." He motions to the surrounding hills of the West Bank. "All you see here is the state of Israel, the heritage of our forefathers. This is ours. Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish nation."
From Noqdim, I travel back inside Israel and head north. I’m on my way to Um Al Fahm, an Arab-Israeli town that sits just inside the Israeli border, not far from the West bank town of Jenin. It’s a crowded, busy town that looks under-developed compared to the surrounding Jewish areas. Here, minarets dot the skyline and the call for prayer rings out across the hills.
I’m on my way to meet some of the people who stand to be most affected by Lieberman’s policies. As a means of reducing the number of Arabs who hold Israeli citizenship, Avigdor Lieberman wants to move Um al Fahm and its 40,000 Muslim Arab residents out of the boundaries of Israel and into the West Bank.
"We are against this idea", Eyad Mahameed tells me. A young lawyer who grew up in the town, Eyad says that while he and the other 1 million Muslim Arabs who hold Israeli citizenship find it difficult to live in an official Jewish state and often suffer from discrimination, they do not like the idea of being forced to give up their citizenship.
"Our passport is given to us not in a favour made by the state of Israel. It’s just our right as people who are citizens of this land and who are born here", he tells me. "We are part of this country it doesn’t matter if you call it Israel or Palestine. For me my country is not the West Bank only. My country extends until Haifa, to the border of Lebanon and to the Mediterranean", Eyad says. "I can’t imagine myself needing to stand in a queue on a border line for hours just to go to the beach."
Eyad and his fellow Arab citizens are also infuriated by Lieberman’s proposal to force them to sign loyalty to a Jewish state or face losing their citizenship. "We don’t want to have to prove to someone who emigrated from Russia just 30 years ago that we are good citizens", Eyad says indignantly.
Back in Jerusalem, Lieberman is already making headlines in his new position. In his first days in office, he gave a firebrand speech; declaring that Israel will no longer abide by the Annapolis agreement, the 2007 deal signed between the previous government, the Palestinian authority and President Bush, that was intended to speed up the creation a Palestinian state.
Lieberman might not get the chance to leave his desired mark on Israeli politics. Just days after being sworn in, Israeli police brought the new Minister in for three days of questioning in relation to the ongoing bribery and fraud investigation against him.
Daniel Kyros is an attorney with the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, the country’s leading anti-corruption NGO. "Lieberman is under investigation for some of the most serious crimes in the book in terms of corruption," he told me. Kyros is seriously concerned about the transparency of the case as Lieberman’s party colleague, Yitzhak Aharonovitch, has just been put in charge of the investigation against the Minister.
"That appointment [was agreed upon]in the coalition agreement. The colleague from his party gets to be the minister for public security because Lieberman decided that he would. And if Lieberman decides that he should leave the post then he will leave the post." says Kyros. Aharonovitch’s appointment could "have a very deleterious effect on the proper running of a sensitive criminal investigation", believes Kyros.
No matter what happens to Lieberman himself, his politics only seem to be gaining more support in Israel — leaving a resolution to the conflict further away than ever.
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