Dispatch February 2009

Jerusalem's Power Broker

Israeli far-right politician Avigdor Lieberman may have lost out to Benjamin Netanyahu and Tzipi Livni in the race for prime minister. But now he’s poised to throw his support to one of his former rivals—and in effect select the next leader.

An  Israeli politician, looking for a strong enough word in Hebrew to describe far-rightist Avigdor Lieberman to me, finally gave up and used the Russian word izgoi, meaning "outcast," with dark medieval connotations of ruined merchants beyond the edge of society. That was two years ago.

Today, the Moldovan-born Lieberman is the most sought-after man in Israeli politics.  His party, Israel Is Our Home, came in third in last week's election, with 15 seats in the 120-member Knesset. The two front-runners, Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu and centrist Tzipi Livni, are virtually tied. With Lieberman's support, either could become prime minister, and they are bidding up the price.

Also see:

"The Minister for National Fears" (May 2007)
With the collapse of the center in Israeli politics, and the growing menace of Iran, Avigdor Lieberman’s extremist views may suddenly become mainstream. By Gershom Gorenberg

Interview: "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.

Lieberman, a burly man with icy blue eyes, met with both contenders after the election, then took off for a vacation in Belarus to let them get nervous. The last dictatorship in Europe was an appropriate destination for a man who told me that the most important book in his life was the Soviet-era novel, Peter the First. The book's ostensible hero is the brutal czar who dragged Russia into modernity, torturing his opponents along the way. But Stalin saw himself as Peter, a very reasonable reading of the book.

As his price for joining a coalition, Lieberman reportedly wants to be minister of defense, finance, or foreign affairs – the three most powerful jobs in the cabinet. He also wants backing for his legislative program, including a citizenship law that would predicate the right to vote on a loyalty oath. The law is designed to disenfranchise Israel's Arab minority. His foreign policy is bellicose. To me, he remarked that "at the end of the day, [Israel] will be alone" in dealing with the Iranian nuclear program. It was a clear threat. 

If they chose to, Livni and Netanyahu could form a government together and leave Lieberman as an izgoi in opposition. But that would require agreeing on who becomes prime minister, and so far, such agreement has been out of reach. On Wednesday, back in Israel, Lieberman is expected to tell Peres whom he supports — Netanyahu or Livni. The price paid for his support could make Israel itself an outcast.

Gershom Gorenberg is the author of The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977 (Times Books). He blogs at southjerusalem.com.
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