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.

The citizenship bill is just one piece of Lieberman’s plan for remaking Israel. Last year, his party submitted a bill it said would provide a more stable government. Under the proposed law, the prime minister could appoint ministers without parliamentary approval. If the Knesset approved a state of emergency, the cabinet could enact emergency regulations temporarily superseding laws—and if “the prime minister sees that the cabinet cannot be convened, and there is a pressing and vital need for emergency regulations, he may enact them.” That system, surely, could eliminate much parliamentary dithering.

In last year’s election, Lieberman dominated the Russian-speaking immigrant vote. But he also won support from other Israelis disappointed with the establishment right. Under Israel’s proportional electoral system, the party gained 11 Knesset seats.

The election followed what Israeli politicians called the “Big Bang.” Ariel Sharon’s pullout from Gaza had left Likud irreparably divided. Sharon bolted to form the new, centrist Kadima (“Forward”) Party. Netanyahu led the rump Likud but lacked a convincing response to the ever-more-pressing Israeli dilemma: Maintaining the occupation seems impossible, but so does negotiating with the Palestinians. When Sharon suffered a stroke, Olmert unexpectedly became Kadima’s candidate. His plan for a unilateral pullout from most of the West Bank was one answer to the national question, and Kadima’s 22 percent of the national vote made it the largest party in parliament. Lieberman, with his harsher response, received 9 percent and just 116 fewer votes nationally than Netanyahu.

To rule, Olmert formed a coalition with the shrunken Labor Party. But last summer’s fighting completed the razing of the old political establishment. The missile attacks launched on Israeli cities from Gaza and southern Lebanon—from which Israel withdrew in 2000— discredited unilateral pullbacks. No mainstream ideology was left standing. Instead of risking early elections, Olmert brought Lieberman into his coalition. Laborites who had once insulted Lieberman agreed to sit at the cabinet table with him rather than risk facing the voters.

“The one consensus on which this government was built was disengagement from the West Bank, and it has become irrelevant,” says Lev Grinberg, a political sociologist at Ben-Gurion University, in Beersheba. In that vacuum, Lieberman “appears as someone who knows the solution. He doesn’t equivocate; he doesn’t fudge.” For Grinberg, this is a clear and present danger to Israeli society. For Lieberman, it is simply the opportunity given to a man who knows what he believes.

“To drag the people out of the age-old swamp, open their eyes, prod them in the ribs. Beat them, lick them into shape, teach them—so the czar describes his life’s mission in the novel Peter the First. Coming to power at the end of the 17th century, Peter is heir to a backward, Asiatic Russia dominated by nobles who only pray and sleep. Peter takes European merchants as his mentors. Among his countrymen, he prefers peasant-born adventurers to the nobles. “The heroes considered that their glory lay in war,” a European friend tells him, and Peter embraces the advice. From the Ottomans he wrests a southern port; from Sweden, the Baltic coast.

Reading the novel, you identify with Peter, yet he is terrifying. When he faces a counterrevolution, “The prisons were filled and thousands of new corpses swayed … on the walls of Moscow.” The czar himself participates in the torture of the conspirators. Just as frightening are the Old Believers, who regard the reforming Peter as the Antichrist. Rather than accept the new order, they prefer to baptize themselves in flames and go “straight to heaven.”

Peter the First stops in mid-story—cut short by the death, in 1945, of the author, Alexey Tolstoy, a distant cousin of the author of War and Peace. The book was a gamble, says Helen Tolstoy, Alexey’s granddaughter and biographer, who teaches Russian literature at Hebrew University. Her grandfather wrote the book, she says, “as if telling Stalin and the Bolsheviks … that we want a progressive, Western country.” Yet Stalin saw some of himself in a czar who required cruelty to bring progress. The author became a favorite of the regime.

“Whenever I am tired or upset and I want something to calm me,” says Lieberman of Peter the First, “I open it on any page and start to read … One cannot understand modern Russia without reading this book.” Nor, perhaps, can one understand Lieberman.

If Israel’s former generals, rival politicians, and security analysts agree on anything about Iran, it’s that Avigdor Lieberman is the wrong person to address the threat. But they reassure themselves that he has no real power. While his job description includes “coordinating all security and intelligence branches,” it also says his appointment does not detract from the authority of the defense and foreign ministers. And ultimately, the buck stops at the prime minister. “Olmert gave him a nice title … [Lieberman] is in charge of talking,” Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh told me.

Leaning back in his chair in his Knesset office, Lieberman waves away such talk. “The threats against Israel are growing,” he tells me. “How much time does the prime minister have to devote to them? He has to deal with coalition problems, with the budget …” Lieberman, though, will have the time, and having a policy proposal when others do not is power. This is how Israeli cabinets have made some of the country’s most crucial decisions in the past.

Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians, Lieberman says, is just one front in the clash of civilizations. The Iranian problem is another part of the collision of the free world and extreme Islam. The Cold War strategy of mutually assured destruction will not work against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Osama bin Laden, he argues. Bin Laden “wants all the infidels to become believers … to send them to heaven. Likewise Ahmadinejad.” The world has the tools to stop Iran, he says, but “I’m afraid that at the end of the day, we will be alone … Our experience from the Second World War is the same. In the Holocaust, everybody knew the facts, but we paid the price.”

Lieberman is not ready yet to say how Israel should face the external threat. But he has already laid his solutions on the table to what he sees as Israel’s internal problems. He speaks quietly, in a low growl, and in his hand the cigar is lit.

Presented by

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

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Confessions of Moms Around the World

A global look at the hardest and best job ever


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open for 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In