Understanding Lieberman

Jerusalem-–During last year’s Israeli elections, far-right candidate Avigdor Lieberman suggested that Arab members of the Knesset should be put to death for talking to Hamas. "Maybe this gives you shivers," said one of Lierbman’s political strategists in an interview with the daily newspaper Haaretz, "but it is very good for our voters."

Now Lieberman is Israel’s foreign minister, but his statements have not become any less inflammatory. Last week he announced that in the event of a war, Israel will topple the Syrian regime. To understand the significance of Lieberman’s bellicosity, it helps to keep Israel’s domestic politics in mind.

Lieberman’s threats should be taken seriously; he is serious about them. Moreover, the perceived political gains and the lack of restraints from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu guarantee that more incendiary missives from Lieberman will rattle the region again soon.

“You will lose the war and you will lose power, you and your family,” Lieberman said, addressing himself to Assad last week. A day earlier, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem had given Lieberman a golden opportunity by threatening that if Israel launched a war against Syria, Israeli cities would come under missile attack. Muallem’s warning came after Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Israel must resume peace talks with Syria or else there would be a full-blown war. Damascus interpreted the remarks as a threat.

While Lieberman’s threat may have sounded alarming in the Arab world and to the Israeli left, which has dubbed Lieberman a "warmonger," strong statements like this play well with Lieberman’s core constituency, the more than a million immigrants who arrived from the former Soviet Union beginning in 1991.

Post-Soviet immigrants to Israel brought with them an ultra-nationalist, hawkish world view and an authoritarian political culture that values the strong leader. Lieberman, born in 1958, and himself an immigrant from Moldova, casts himself as the guardian of Israeli “national pride” and as the strong leader for whom the Russian immigrants are looking, more so after Ariel Sharon was incapacitated by a stroke in 2005.

Lieberman won about 60 percent of the Russian immigrant vote in last year’s election. He has his sights set on more next time

Bullying and threats against Israel’s neighbors have been a consistent character of Lieberman’s career, but now that he is foreign minister, they have become the state’s position.

Egypt has also experienced Lieberman’s bellicosity in the past. His Syria threat was mild compared to his suggestion in 1998 that Israel bomb the Aswan High Dam in retaliation for Cairo’s support of Yasser Arafat. In 2001, Lieberman re-stated the threat, reportedly saying that if an Egyptian-Israel war breaks out, Israel could target the dam.

In his 2004 book, My Truth, Lieberman terms Egypt “our most serious problem in the Arab world,” adding that he wishes he could turn back the clock and do away with the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Last year, Lieberman fumed that President Hosni Mubarak had not visited Israel, adding that “if he doesn’t want to come, he can go to hell.”

Palestinians have also been on the receiving end of Lieberman’s ire. In 2003, he called for Palestinian prisoners who were due to be released, to be drowned in the Dead Sea instead “since it is the lowest point in the world.” During last year’s Gaza war, he implied that Gaza should be attacked with nuclear weapons or otherwise obliterated, saying that Israel must continue to fight Hamas just like “the US did with Japan in World War II.”

Partly at the behest of Israel-based adviser George Birnbaum and his partner, the American political strategist Arthur Finkelstein, Lieberman based his election campaign last year on stoking racist animosity towards Israel’s Arab citizens. “Only Lieberman understands Arabic” was one of his slogans. Another, approved personally by Finkelstein, said, “No citizenship without loyalty,” a reference to Lieberman’s promise to strip Arabs of their citizenship unless they pledged allegiance to Israel as a Jewish state.

Birnbaum, Finkelstein and Lieberman’s calculations were simple: casting the Arab minority as an internal enemy of Israeli Jews pays off at the ballot box, never mind if that is what Jews themselves faced as a minority in Europe and elsewhere. Moving from domestic politics to international relations, Lieberman’s signature bellicosity becomes "national pride," which still pays with voters.

“All Lieberman does is look at his voters in Israel,” says Roman Bronfman, a former member of the Knesset and immigrant from the Soviet Union. “The damage in foreign policy and for the Middle East is dramatic.”

In Bronfman’s view, backing Lieberman’s ultra-nationalist positions is a way for Russian immigrants to fit in with Israeli society. “They don’t have roots here, many don’t speak Hebrew properly. They don’t have an emotional attachment to Judaism. Their way to connect is through national pride and racism. They came from a totalitarian regime and they think that it’s natural and necessary for a leader to be strong.”

A senior government minister, in anonymous remarks to the Ynet news agency, suggested that the threat against Assad was a political ploy. “Perhaps Finkelstein told Lieberman to make those statements because it will benefit his political position,” the minister said.

However, David Rotem, a member of Knesset from Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, strongly denies this. “Whoever heard Syria’s threats against Israel knows that it was his obligation to make clear to the enemy that if the enemy tries to harm the citizens of Israel, Israel will react in a grave manner.” Rotem says that Lieberman threatened Assad and his family personally with loss of power because, in his view, the Syrian regime does not care about the country’s citizens, only about itself.

Rotem defined Lieberman’s policy of “national pride” in foreign affairs succinctly: “That the state safeguards principles and is concerned for the citizens of Israel. That it is not willing to accept slaps in the face.” Following this policy, Israel recently humiliated Turkey’s ambassador to Tel Aviv by making him sit on a low chair to protest a television series in Turkey that was viewed as anti-Semitic.

Yisrael Beiteinu’s crucial 15 seats in Netanyahu’s coalition government is enough to give Lieberman license to say whatever he wants and show voters he is implementing the “national pride” policy.

“Lieberman is not to be pushed around, and Netanyahu, who needs him desperately gives in to all his follies. Between the two of them, Netanyahu is the one who doesn’t have the nerve,” says Uri Dromi, former spokesman for the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Netanyahu appears not to object to Lieberman’s approach. He could sack Lieberman by bringing the Kadima Party, led by former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, into the coalition. But Netanyahu has shown no inclination to do so.

Dromi says Middle East history shows that words can inflame the region. He recalls that threatening statements by Rabin, then army chief of staff, against Syria helped precipitate the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

“I think Lieberman can cause real damage. I don’t think he will bring us to war, or at least so I hope, but the Arabs have difficulty deciphering what Israel is about," Dromi says.

"They will ask how can Israel support the peace process and have a foreign minister talking like this? Netanyahu has called on the Syrians to resume peace talks unconditionally, while Lieberman is threatening the regime. Arabs who are suspicious of us anyway will conclude that Lieberman is the real Israel, which I don’t think is the case necessarily.”

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