Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images
Israeli Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the far-right Israel Beiteinu party, speaks at the party's headquarters in Jerusalem on election night, Feb. 11. His party placed third in the parliamentary polls.
Israeli Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the far-right Israel Beiteinu party, speaks at the party's headquarters in Jerusalem on election night, Feb. 11. His party placed third in the parliamentary polls. Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images
Avigdor Lieberman is Israel's new political kingmaker. He and his ultranationalist Israel Beiteinu party finished in a strong third place in last week's parliamentary elections.
Now, he is being courted as a coalition partner by both of the leading political parties.
But Lieberman also has plenty of detractors, including Israel's Arab citizens and ultra-Orthodox Jews.
Leaders of the centrist Kadima party, which came in first, and the conservative Likud party, which finished a close second, are both aggressively wooing Lieberman. The burly 50-year-old former nightclub bouncer from Moldova and his party got more seats in the Knesset than the once-dominant Israeli Labor Party.
Kadima and Likud are now offering top Cabinet positions — and more, says Danny Ayalon, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States and a newly elected member of parliament on Lieberman's ticket.
"I would say the important thing right now is to have a broad-based coalition," Ayalon says.
Inflaming Tensions Between Israel's Arabs And Jews
But to be part of a broad-based government, Lieberman and his party have to overcome political obstacles and hostility from many corners. Many Israeli Arab politicians and Jewish liberals in Israel call Lieberman a dangerous racist for advocating a citizenship law that would require loyalty oaths to the state.
"He made everyone choose," says Israeli pollster Mitchell Barak. "You're either for his idea of loyalty for citizenship, or you're against it."
Barak says many Jewish Israelis were outraged by images of Israeli Arab citizens protesting in favor of Hamas and Hezbollah during Israel's wars with those militant groups. He says Lieberman capitalized on that anger and attracted votes and, in turn, further strained relations between Arabs and Jews here.
"It got his supporters riled up, and it was able to attract support from other places," says Barak. "I definitely do think it has inflamed tensions between Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews. It's like a powder keg. You know, it can be ignited and we can see some real problems."
Meanwhile, ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties detest Lieberman's promotion of civil marriages — which are not recognized by the rabbis — and his support for the sale of pork products.
The spiritual leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party said during the campaign that anyone who votes for Lieberman lends support to Satan and risks punishment "more than he can bear."
Supporters: Lieberman A Straight-Talking Maverick
Ayalon, the Israel Beiteinu lawmaker, says attacks on Lieberman are efforts to delegitimize a growing, popular movement and its straight-talking maverick leader.
Lieberman has built the party, Ayalon says, in the face of prejudice from Israeli religious and political elites who sometimes look down on immigrants such as Lieberman.
"Maybe if he had a clean-shaven face and, you know, would get rid of his beard and have a sabra accent and not a heavy Russian accent, I believe he could have been prime minister by now," Ayalon says. "It is tackling all the issues sometimes without being politically correct. But we say what we mean and mean what we say. We have a very complete agenda."
Lieberman's controversial agenda includes swapping Israeli-Arab villages for Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, loyalty legislation, civil marriages, and reforming Israel's splintered parliamentary political system.
Ties To Netanyahu
Lieberman arrived in Israel from the former Soviet Union in 1978 when he was 20 years old. He joined Likud and eventually became party leader Benjamin Netanyahu's chief of staff — and followed "Bibi," as he is known, into the prime minister's office in 1996.
But differences emerged, and Lieberman's at times in-your-face style alienated some in Netanyahu's office. In 1999, he broke with Netanyahu and created Israel Beiteinu (our homeland), a party that pollster and former Likud speechwriter Barak says Lieberman built up by placing a huge emphasis on trust and loyalty.
"Lieberman is a very focused individual and he's a very loyal individual. A lot of people he hires are very loyal to him, and he shows loyalty in return, and that's very important," Barak says.
While Lieberman has ties to Kadima's leader, Tzipi Livni — he helped Livni get her first big job in government — most observers in Israel think Lieberman will choose to form a coalition with Likud.
But that's not a sure bet. He and Likud's Netanyahu are old allies, but sources say there is lingering mistrust. Last week, Lieberman told supporters, "I'm not in Bibi's pocket."