Worldbeaters: Avigdor Lieberman
Job: Israeli Defence Minister
Reputation: Voice of xenophobic racism in Israeli politics
When Lieberman grabbed the defence ministry in what was termed a ‘Game of Thrones’ manoeuvre by the Israeli press, it marked a political watershed for what is increasingly becoming a racially identified Israeli garrison state. While the idea of a Jewish state has always been plagued by ambivalence and contradiction, its more chauvinistic and expansionist ambitions had been kept in check by the country’s liberal and leftist currents. The rise of Lieberman calls all this into question. As Defence Minister, he is well placed to deal harshly with a military that has at times shown reluctance to follow the more extremist dictates of the Israeli hard Right.
Moldovan-born Lieberman entered serious politics in the late 1980s and quickly came to prominence as a member of the Israeli political class. He has served in (mostly rightwing) coalition governments as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs. His self-created political vehicle, the Yisrael Beiteinu (‘Israel is our home’) party, draws its political base almost entirely from the Russian-speaking immigrants that have formed a significant segment of Israeli society since the collapse of the USSR in the 1990s. Lieberman has been able to use the votes and shifting numbers of seats of Yisrael – a minority secular party of the nationalist Right – both as a kind of kingmaker in Israeli politics and as a means to achieve his own personal ambitions.
From the get-go, Lieberman has been a lightning rod for controversy: as a brawler and bouncer in his university days and, more recently, for a beating administered to a 12-year-old unfortunate enough to get into a dispute with his son. Charges of fraud and accepting bribes have dogged Yisrael throughout its short history, forcing a number of resignations from minority government cabinet positions. Lieberman himself has sailed close to the wind on a number of occasions on issues such as receiving illegal contributions, and was forced to resign (temporarily) from his foreign-affairs post in 2012 when faced with charges of breach of trust and fraud.
But he has shown an uncanny ability to reinvent himself, often by trading politically in the anti-Palestinian and anti-Arab rhetoric for which the Israeli electorate seems to have an insatiable thirst. He has called for the bombing of the Aswan dam to teach the Egyptians a sharp lesson (2001); the beheading of Palestinian members of the Knesset for their ‘treasonous’ views (2006); and the drowning of Palestinian prisoners in the Dead Sea instead of releasing them as part of a prisoner exchange (2003). He implied that the Israeli Defense Force should drop an atomic bomb on Gaza during the 2012 Israeli ‘incursion’ there, and has long held that Israel’s Palestinian citizens ‘have no place here’.
Lieberman can be seen as an amplifier of the opinions of Russian immigrants who arrived in Israel with little understanding of its history or sympathy for Palestinian grievances. For the most part, they rallied around Russian boss-type politicians of the Putin mould, such as Lieberman and former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky. Both opposed Ariel Sharon’s 2005 tactical withdrawal of settlements from Gaza. Lieberman is a great admirer of Vladimir Putin, whose jingoistic authoritarian pragmatism he recreates in an Israeli context. Russian immigration in Israel remains an uncomfortable fit – the immigrants retain their own language and interest in classical and contemporary Russian culture and are uneasy with the more religious aspects of Judaism that are privileged by the Israeli state. They often express amazement that tiny (in comparison to Russia) Israel would ever even consider ‘giving up’ land for peace.