Interviews: "'Israel Is Our Home'" (April 3, 2007)
Gershom Gorenberg elucidates the startling politics of Avigdor Lieberman, a right-wing Israeli politician who has lately taken center stage.
Avigdor Lieberman is an oversized man in an undersized room. His beard, remorselessly trimmed to a narrow, graying stripe around his cheeks, frames a wide face with pale, icy eyes. As he speaks, he waves his tiger paw of a hand, holding a cigar the proportions of a small cannon. The cigar is not lit, but the laws of drama say it will be by the third act. In Russian-accented Hebrew, he is talking about his admiration for Peter the Great and Winston Churchill. Before World War II, he says, all the “lovely, liberal, progressive people” threw every insult at Churchill that they now throw at him—“warmonger, embittered, extremist”—except for having a beard and being Russian. He smiles at the thought.
On the small stage of Israeli politics, Avigdor Lieberman is a suddenly large figure. Little more than a year ago, he was the leader of a splinter party of the radical right, excoriated for advocating a program that would disenfranchise and even expel Israel’s Arab citizens. But in an electoral earthquake last March, as Israel’s ruling parties crumbled, Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu (“Israel Is Our Home”) received nearly a tenth of the national vote—a virtual tie with Likud, the party of the respectable right. Lieberman has since joined Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s ruling coalition as minister for strategic affairs.
On paper at least, Lieberman is responsible for coordinating Israel’s response to threats including the Iranian nuclear program and Hezbollah, Iran’s ally in Lebanon. Iran—its nuclear program, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s insistence that Israel will cease to exist, his denial of the Holocaust—features daily on Israel’s front pages. The failure last summer to disarm Hezbollah amplified the public panic. One poll conducted several months after last summer’s war with Lebanon showed that 66 percent of Israelis believed that if Iran got the bomb, it would try to destroy Israel. Lieberman’s newly created post might better be labeled “minister for national fears.”
Yet the fears on which Lieberman focuses are domestic. Israel’s parliamentary system has created instability, he says, tapping a common anxiety after five governments in fewer than 11 years. His answer: revamping the system to give the prime minister nearly unchecked power. The country’s Arab minority is a fifth column, he argues. His answer: removing the minority from the state or from the voting rolls—to transform Israel from a Jewish state to a Jews-only state.
Lieberman’s ascent, say supporters (and some rivals), shows he has moved toward the center. It could just as easily be read as evidence that the center of Israeli politics has collapsed. Olmert and the centrist Kadima movement were casualties of the war in Lebanon last summer. To bolster support in parliament, the prime minister had to offer Lieberman influence over decisions that could shape, and shake, the Middle East. Simply by granting him a ministerial position, Olmert gave legitimacy to hard-line views on internal issues. In December, addressing a convention of his Yisrael Beitenu, Lieberman declared that his goal was “to be the ruling party” within two elections. When aristocracies fade, a pariah may reign.
Soon after Lieberman’s appointment to the cabinet, I met him in Jerusalem, in his cramped office in Israel’s parliament building. Lieberman dismisses the Israeli media as “superficial and cynical” for looking for electoral calculations in his decision to join the government. His only goal, he insists, is to protect the country from growing dangers, such as the risk of a new Holocaust at Iran’s hands. “Anyone who draws the lessons from Hitler’s rise [knows Hitler] was telling the truth, and Ahmadinejad is telling the truth,” he says, referring to the Iranian president’s threats against Israel. “All attempts to pacify Hitler ended in World War II, and all attempts to appease Ahmadinejad are doomed to failure.”
The same dark certainty underlies Lieberman’s view of Jews and Palestinians. “Every place in the world where there are two peoples—two religions, two languages—there is friction and conflict,” he asserts. That iron law, he says, pounding his desk, applies to Northern Ireland, Canada, and the Caucasus. The solution is total political division—and so, just as Palestinians seek a state that is “Judenrein,” Israel must be free of a disloyal Arab minority. Otherwise, he says, “linkage … will clearly exist between Israeli Arabs and the future Palestinian state,” and “the pressure from within and without will blow us apart.”
Lieberman says he “identifies very deeply” with Churchill, who “stuck to his position and let nothing move him … I like people who swim against the current.” The same qualities draw him to Peter the Great. “At least 300 times” Lieberman has read Peter the First, a Soviet-era historical novel describing the 7-foot-tall autocrat who dragged Russia into modern Europe and made it a military power, and he believes himself to be a man, like Peter and Churchill, who sees grim truths and whose foresight will yet be rewarded.
Lieberman was born in Kishinev, in Soviet Moldova, in 1958, the only child of a father who had spent six years in the Red Army and 10 more in forced exile in Siberia—an entirely ordinary history for a Jewish family where he grew up. His strongest memory is of his parents’ insistence on speaking only Yiddish in public. “We’d get on a bus, packed with people, all gentiles … and every head turned toward us. I was a kid—3, 4 years old—and I had the feeling we were different, something else completely, and that everyone was cursing to himself—‘You Zhids, go to Israel! What are you doing here?’—and [my parents] would speak Yiddish!” It was “a matter of character” and a lesson in defiance.
When he was 20, the family left the Soviet Union. His parents had wanted him to complete an engineering degree, but Lieberman refused to wait. (Waiting, it turned out, would have been costly. In 1980, after a decade in which at least 120,000 Soviet Jews left for Israel, Leonid Brezhnev’s regime shut the gates to emigration.) In Israel, he worked as an airport porter and a nightclub doorman. At Hebrew University, he switched to international relations and joined a student party linked to the right-wing Likud. The construction of his schooling—a technical foundation, with politics on top—may explain his view that “the laws of history are the same as the laws of physics”: precise and repetitive.
After graduating, he became a Likud functionary—an immigrant success with a career in the party in power. He and his wife, Ella, a fellow immigrant he’d met in a prep course for university studies, moved to a small West Bank settlement, Nokdim, in the barren hills southeast of Bethlehem. It was an example of the personal as very political in Israel: choosing one’s home to help keep “Judea and Samaria”—the biblical term for the West Bank— permanently in Israeli hands.
In the late 1980s, Lieberman met Benjamin Netanyahu and became his campaign chief. They were both outsiders in Likud, a movement dominated by the sons and daughters of the Israeli revolution—children of the rightist Irgun underground who’d fought both the Arabs and the British before independence. In 1996, Netanyahu was elected prime minister, and Lieberman, just 38, became director-general of the prime minister’s office (equivalent to being chief of staff for a U.S. president).