Avigdor Lieberman is one of the more interesting creatures of Israeli politics.
He came to fame as a Netanyahu protege and Director General of the Prime Minister's Office during part of Benyamin Netanyahu's first term as Prime Minister (1996-99). Later he went out on his own to create the political party Israel our Home. Most of his voters are immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and his party may receive more "Russian" votes than any other. His primary constituency amounts to more than a million in a total population of 7.7 million.
The record of Israel our Home is 4 Knesset seats won in the elections of 1999 and 2003, 11 seats in 2006, and 15 seats in 2009.
Currently Lieberman is Foreign Minister, which in formal terms means that he occupies one of the four most prestigious positions in Israel's government. Also at the summit are the Prime Minister, Minister of Defense, and Finance Minister.
However, the picture is not so simple.
While Lieberman occupies the position of Foreign Minister, there is some question about his actual functioning in that job. Among his problems are a reputation as a political extremist, especially on the issue of Palestinians and Israeli Arabs, and a tendency to be more outspoken, even blunt and blustering, than dignataries in the world of foreign policy and diplomacy are inclined to tolerate. He is not formally persona non grata in the major capitals, but the Prime Minister has taken on himself the heavy work of diplomacy. He has shared it with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and has accepted the assistance of President Shimon Peres.
Danny Ayalon is one of the non-Russian Knesset Members of Israel our Home. He comes from a background as career diplomat, and served in the Foreign Ministry's premier position as Ambassador to the United States. His formal role in the present government is Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, but at times he appears to be more the front man than Lieberman.
Lieberman has been prominent in delegations to less important capitals in Africa and Latin America, and in the not so unimportant capital of Russia. His Moldavan background and his command of Russian may help, as well as being a bridge between Russia and the million former citizens or still citizens living in Israel. There have been high profile meetings of Liberman with Vladimir Putin. One of them did not play well in international media, when Lieberman gave his blessing to an election that most other observers derided as severely flawed.
Another problem of Lieberman, beside his bluster and a reputation for extremism, is a long running police investigation into charges of financial irregularities with respect to political contributions and the management of businesses owned and managed either by him or (what some suspect are ficticious manipulations) by his daughter.
Something else that is not so simple is Lieberman's reputation as a political extremist. It rests, in part, on his proposal to solve the Palestinian problem by exchanging people and territories. He would transfer Israeli Arab towns to Palestine, in exchange for Jewish settlements over the 1967 borders in the West Bank. That has gotten him intro trouble with legal experts, civil rights proponents, and Israel's Arab citizens who wonder if they would have any say in the transfer, as well as what would happen to the pensions, health insurance, and other services that they receive as Israelis far above what they would receive as Palestinians.
Lieberman does not qualify as as extremist on other issues, unless the term is used for someone who has stood up to Israel's religious bloc in order to get a better deal for Israelis whose identity as Jews is not accepted by the official Rabbinate. Lieberman has pushed for civil marriages, or at least the enactment of legislation giving the partners of "civil unions" the same rights as married couples, and for more accommodating procedures of conversion for those who want to become Jews. In keeping with his distance from religious politicians, Lieberman has avoided the extremism of claiming that God gave the Land of Israel to the Jews.
Depending on what the public prosecutor decides about the file gathered about him, Lieberman may either be on the sidelines for the next election, or be in a position to garner support from anti-Haredi sentiments concerned with women, the rejection of military service, modern education, and work.
Consistent with his outspoken style, Lieberman finds support from Israelis who admire his candor. Some of them vote for him. Some of those, and others see him as heavy handed, use the term "gangster" for his autocratic manner in running his political party and his problems with the police. Nonetheless, some of his critics applaud him for speaking truth to power.
Most recently he has been in the headlines for decrying the impotence of foreign policy worthies from other countries who speak about the slaughter of innocent civilians in Syria, but do nothing tangible to help the victims. He has coupled that observation with asking how Israel can rely on overseas officials who repeatedly express guarantees for Israeli security, but so far have done nothing more than say that Iran must not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons, and rely on sanctions and diplomacy that have not deterred Iran.
These latest comments have added to a media frenzy that has gone way beyond Lieberman. It consists of Barack Obama claiming in a speech to AIPAC that there has been no American President who was a better friend of Israel, a speech by Shimon Peres at the same session of AIPAC where the Israeli President seemed to be signing on to Obama's re-election campaign, and against both Obama and Peres a 30-minute film released by a group calling itself the Emergency Committee for Israel. It claims that Obama has been the worst President in failing to provide political support for Israel.
In Prime Minister Netanyahu' speech to AIPAC, he put himself on the same page as his former protege. Even while Netanyahu attested to his great admiration for President Barack Obama, he also compared Israel's situation to that of the Jews in 1944 when the American government refused its pleas to bomb Auschwitz. Commentators are reading between the lines of Netanyahu's speech a demand that the United States or Israel must take action before the November election.
Neither the Israeli public nor Israeli officials are of one mind about the wisdom of attacking Iran. Lieberman may not be crucial in Israel's decision to attack or to wait. At the very least, however, the point he makes about trust resonates. If Barack Obama wants cooperation from the Israelis who will decide about military action, he'd be advised to take note of what was said by our marginally undesirable Foreign Minister.
Among the things Israelis are quarreling about is whether the President's recent comments, and those of his Defense Secretary, have dealt with the issue of trust.
In some places, perhaps including the White House, Prime Minister Netanyahu is also marginally undesirable. Yet he will be among those making decisions about attacking Iran.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Posted by Ira Sharkansky at March 06, 2012 11:47 PM