The Minister for National Fears

With the collapse of the center in Israeli politics, and the growing menace of Iran, Avigdor Lieberman’s extremist views may suddenly become mainstream.

Lieberman gained a reputation as the enforcer who crushed internal party dissent. A party convention voted to cancel primaries for parliamentary candidates so that the Netanyahu-controlled central committee could choose the ticket. Lieberman’s operatives, it was said, passed out pre-marked ballots to obedient delegates. The epithets for him—“KGB,” “Rasputin”—bespoke fear, and also resentment of someone who had grown up elsewhere. Netanyahu faced open rebellion. In late 1997, Lieberman resigned, apparently sacrificed to satisfy the old elite. In a farewell speech, he attacked those “who think this party is divided into princes and slaves.”

He became his own boss—first in a private business, described by an aide as import-export and by others who know Lieberman as having dealt mainly in the former Eastern Bloc. When Israel went back to the polls in 1999, Lieberman exploited the country’s multiparty system to run on his own ticket. Russian-speaking political insiders suggest that he was tired of being Netanyahu’s messenger boy and, like many on the right, objected to compromises that Netanyahu had made with the Palestinians at the Wye summit, in 1998. His “princes and slaves” remark hints that he had also tired of seeking acceptance in Likud. Instead, he chose to flaunt his immigrant identity.

In the 1990s, Israeli demographics had shifted dramatically. Nearly a million immigrants poured into the country from the former Soviet Union, becoming close to 15 percent of the population. Unlike the earlier wave, they faced a tough transition. “For many, this was not their real choice,” says Larissa Remennick, a Russian-educated sociologist who arrived in 1991. “They came to the Middle East despite their desire to be in the West.” Remennick, a professor at Bar-Ilan University, outside Tel Aviv, is among the fortunate who found work matching her education. The number of engineers in Israel quadrupled, she says; the number of physicians doubled. Disappointed professionals became semiskilled laborers, sometimes competing with Israel’s Arab underclass. Whole towns turned into immigrant enclaves; a Russian-language press flourished. An immigrant party led by ex-Soviet political prisoner Natan Sharansky helped Netanyahu take power in 1996. Lieberman turned to that constituency, challenging Sharansky as well as Netanyahu. His party’s name, “Israel Is Our Home,” is the loud declaration of those actually not quite at home. Read with the stress on Our, it also implies that there are other people in the country who should be considered aliens.

In 1999, Lieberman’s party won four seats in the 120-seat Knesset. The result left him on the political margins, and to bolster his position, he formed an alliance with the far-right National Union. That party, led by a former general, called for the “voluntary transfer” of Palestinians out of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Lieberman’s foreign policy was equally strident. In a 2001 meeting with ambassadors from the former Soviet republics, he reportedly said that Israel should attack Egypt’s Aswan Dam or Iran’s capital if threatened, “and we have missiles that reach Tehran.”

More audacious, though, is his new position on the Palestinian question. In 2004, Lieberman suddenly dropped his hard-line opposition to Palestinian independence and declared that he favored partitioning the land now held by Israel between Jews and Palestinians. It was part of a trend: Ehud Olmert, one of the Likud princes, had just come out for unilateral withdrawal from much of the West Bank; Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had announced his plan to pull out of Gaza. A whole slice of the right seemed to accept the left’s argument that Israel could not remain a Jewish and democratic country if it kept the territories it had occupied since 1967, with their unenfranchised Palestinian residents.

Lieberman, though, had his own twist: He proposed that Israel keep its largest West Bank settlements—and cede some of its own territory near the West Bank boundary, areas populated by Arabs who are Israeli citizens and voters. Initially, he spoke of “transferring” Arab citizens from elsewhere in Israel to the new Palestinian state.

“I am definitely speaking of exchanging populations and territory simultaneously, because there is no other solution,” Lieberman said from the Knesset podium in June 2004. From the left-wing benches came constant, angry catcalls.

“You’re like Stalin, and your transfer is like Stalin’s!” shouted the Laborite Yuli Tamir.

Lieberman struggled to return to his prepared text, citing the division of Cyprus into Greek and Turkish sectors as a model. “In the last two decades,” he said, “populations have been transferred in Central Europe … for instance in the Balkans.”

The heckling grew.

“I suggest to the left that it go to a democratic country like Syria,” Lieberman said.

“You go! What chutzpah! Who are you at all?” answered another heckler, Avshalom Vilan. As a kibbutz member, Vilan is part of an Israeli gentry whose fortunes have faded like those of the antebellum plantation owners in Faulkner’s novels. His gibe suggested that Lieberman was beyond the pale socially as well as politically. On other occasions, facing Arab hecklers in the Knesset, Lieberman has caught fire as an orator, shouting and slamming the podium. This time he looked rattled.

Lieberman, though, has stopped speaking of “transfer.” Instead, his platform in last year’s election called for conditioning citizenship on a loyalty oath to the state, the flag, and the national anthem. The requirement would apply to “every person reaching adulthood,” Yisrael Beitenu’s director-general, Faina Kirshenbaum, stressed when I spoke with her. Israel’s flag, with its Jewish star, and its anthem describing the “Jewish soul stirring,” have long spurred opposition from Israeli Arabs. Under Lieberman’s plan, anyone declining the oath would remain a resident but could not vote. Just as his partition plan would draw a sharp geographic border between Jews and Arabs, his citizenship bill would draw a thick black border in Israeli society between those who belong to the polity and those who do not. The Arabs would be outside; the immigrants would be inside. “Such a law is customary in advanced Western countries, chief among them the United States of America,” the party platform claims. “I’d say we’re more a party of the center” than of the right, Kirshenbaum told me. “We’re pragmatic.”

Surprisingly, that view is accepted by Roman Bronfman, who for a decade was the most prominent politician on the dovish side of the Russian-speaking community. Originally from Ukraine, Bronfman came to Israel in 1980 and earned his doctorate in Russian history. After leaving the Knesset last year, he opened an investment firm. His office is on the 25th floor of a Tel Aviv high-rise and looks out over the country’s most Westernized city toward the Mediterranean. The magazines in the waiting room are all in Hebrew, not Russian; the coffee offered by the receptionist is espresso, the beverage of communion for the Israeli business class. The office proclaims that Bronfman belongs. Lieberman, says Bronfman, “understood that his right-wing stance made him—in Russian the word is izgoi—an outcast,” and has been trying to fit into the new political consensus that wants territorial division and peace. But “he’s a racist,” Bronfman adds. “He has accepted ending the conflict with Palestinians but has opened a front against the Israeli Arabs.”

Presented by

Gershom Gorenberg is the author of, most recently, The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967–1977 (2006).

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