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.
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From Atlantic Unbound:

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).

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.”

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.

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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