Avigdor Lieberman’s apparently inexorable rise in Israeli politics continues.
The blowhard nationalist, former nightclub bouncer and secular sectarian who would rather a pure Jewish state than countenance equal rights for Jews and non-Jews, now holds the second most powerful ministry in the country.
Lieberman’s record suggests this could either end unremarkably or very, very badly indeed. Between shooting from the hip and bending to prevailing winds – also known as political pragmatism – there doesn’t seem to be a lot of substance.
Even by the questionable standards of Israeli politics, the defense portfolio is a huge gift to a man who was convicted of a 1999 assault on a 12-year-old boy and has been implicated in a major corruption investigation.
That is without taking into account countless incendiary comments about Palestinians, for whom he is trying to introduce their very own death penalty, Palestinian citizens of Israel, who he wants to expel, and foreign politicians.
More recently, he has hurled insults at Swedish foreign minister Margot Wallstrom.
Responding to Wallstrom’s call for an investigation into Israel’s extrajudicial executions of Palestinians earlier his year, Lieberman claimed the “only thing” she hadn’t done yet was to “physically join Palestinian terrorists and stab Jews.”
He has worked his way up the government ladder from infrastructure minister to transport – reportedly offering to provide buses so that Palestinians could be taken to the Dead Sea and drowned – to minister for strategic affairs and foreign policy.
And he served two stints as deputy prime minister.
Born in Moldova, Lieberman founded Yisrael Beiteinu, a Russian-immigrant dominated party, in 1999.
“Seeds of fascism”
As Yisrael Beiteinu leader, he has played kingmaker for successive Israeli governments during the past decade. That is the reason he was offered the defense portfolio.
Without the party’s six seats, Netanyahu’s uneasy ultra-nationalist and ultra-religious coalition would have had to rely on a single-seat majority in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset.
Not one to shunt aside political expediency for other considerations, Netanyahu therefore happily ignored the parting shot from Moshe Yaalon that “extremist and dangerous elements have overrun” Israel.
Yaalon had resigned as defense minister when Netanyahu moved to replace him.
Yaalon was, of course, a man jilted, a former army chief of staff being forced to make way for a civilian to take charge of a military that boasts of being the “most moral” in the world, in order to shore up a malfunctioning governing coalition.
But Yaalon was not simply unloading a broadside, and he was not alone.
Lieberman, who lives in the Nokdim settlement south of Bethlehem, is the very voluble symptom of Israeli extremism, a man who voices what was once deemed politically unacceptable.
His vision of a two-state solution involves transferring Palestinian citizens of Israel to a new Palestinian state by swapping Palestinian-majority areas inside Israel for settlement blocs in the occupied West Bank.
He has called for Palestinian members of the Knesset to be prosecuted for treason, advocated to “chop off” the heads of “anyone who’s against us.” And he repeatedly questions the loyalty of Palestinians living inside present-day Israel.
He is also at the head of a growing group of hardline settlers unsatisfied with the military for not being tough enough on Palestinians.
This in spite of decades of sham or nonexistent investigations into allegations of soldier misconduct that have only served to whitewash the occupation, according to the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, and the near-impunity enjoyed by settlers in the West Bank under a two-tier legal system.
The settlers nominally live under Israeli civilian law, while Palestinians are subjected to military courts.
He also denounced Netanyahu’s handling of the 2014 Gaza assault as not aggressive enough.
Indeed, he has denounced Netanyahu a number of times. In April, he reportedly called Netanyahu a “degenerate liar and swindler.”
One month earlier, he described the prime minister as “spineless.”
Such flip-flops, from outright condemnation to willing coalition partner, also suggest another side to Lieberman. In politics, it’s called pragmatism.
It means he is willing to say and do whatever it takes to ride the prevailing wind.
That side of him is the one that came out a few days ago when he stood next to Netanyahu as the Israeli prime minister said he would be willing to negotiate with Arab countries and the Palestinians on the basis of the 2002 Arab peace initiative, which is in effect a Saudi restatement of international law with inbuilt potential compromises.
This suggests Lieberman will be far less bold in action then he is in word. It may temper his time as defense minister as he perhaps eyes the bigger prize for himself, the premiership – a position he suggested in 2014 may soon belong to a Russian-speaker.
Moreover, he has previously advocated a “thorough cleansing” in Gaza.
He is now in a better position to make that happen.
Omar Karmi is a former Jerusalem and Washington, DC, correspondent for The National newspaper.