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The leader of Israel's ultra-nationalist Israel Our Homeland Party is on vacation at a riverside resort in Belarus. But he still wields significant power, as the results of last week's parliamentary elections are sorted out.
Avigdor Lieberman finished a strong third. And now he's 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, as well as ultra Orthodox Jews.
NPR's Eric Westervelt reports from Jerusalem.
ERIC WESTERVELT: Leaders of the centrist Kadima party, which came in first, and the conservative Likud, which finished a close second, are both aggressively wooing Avigdor Lieberman. The burly 50-year-old former nightclub bouncer from Moldova and his Israel Our Homeland party got more seats in parliament 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 U.S. and a newly elected member of parliament on Lieberman's ticket.
Mr. DANIEL AYALON (Former Israeli Ambassador to the United States): I would say the important thing right now is to have a broad-based coalition.
WESTERVELT: 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 here call Lieberman a dangerous racist for advocating a citizenship law that would require loyalty oaths to the state.
Mr. MITCHELL BARAK (Political Analyst): He made everyone choose. Either you're for his idea of loyalty for citizenship, or you're against it.
WESTERVELT: Israeli analyst and pollster Mitchell 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. Barak says Lieberman capitalized on that anger and attracted votes and, in turn, further strained relations between Arabs and Jews here.
Mr. BARAK: It got his supporters riled up, and it was able to attract supporters from other places. I definitely do think that it has inflamed tensions between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs. And it's like a powder keg, you know? And it can be ignited and we can see some real problems.
WESTERVELT: 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, quote, "more than he can bear."
Ayalon, the Israel Our Homeland 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.
Mr. AYALON: Maybe if he had a clean-shaven face and, you know, would get rid of his beard and would have a Sabra accent and not a heavy Russian accent, I believe he could have been prime minister by now. He's tackling all the issues sometimes without being politically correct. But we say what we mean and we mean what we say. We have a very complete agenda.
WESTERVELT: 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.
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's 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 Our Homeland, a party that pollster and former Likud speechwriter Mitchell Barak says Lieberman built up by placing a huge emphasis on trust and loyalty.
Mr. BARAK: Lieberman is a very focused individual and he's a very loyal individual. A lot of the people he hires are very loyal to him, and he shows loyalty in return, and that's very important.
WESTERVELT: While Lieberman has ties to Kadima's leader Tzipi Livni - and he helped Livni get her first big job in government - most here think Lieberman will choose to form a coalition with Likud.
But that's not a sure bet. He and Netanyahu of Likud are old allies, but sources say there is lingering mistrust. Lieberman told supporters last week, quote, "I'm not in Bibi's pocket."
Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Jerusalem.
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