Lieberman nod to Netanyahu tips Israel right
The controversial leader of the Yisrael Beytenu party endorsed Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu Thursday, virtually ensuring that a right-wing coalition will govern the country.
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"It's nightmarish but not inconceivable. Lieberman has become the face of ugly Israel," he says. "Lieberman would be an anti-foreign minister because of his reputation. Even if he tones his rhetoric down, the vulgar anti-Arab campaign will continue to haunt him."Skip to next paragraph
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To be sure, for someone who came up through the ranks of the right-wing Likud party to serve as Netanyahu's chief of staff during his first term as prime minister, Lieberman has an approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that is unorthodox.
His focus on demographic politics and the need to separate from the Palestinians takes a page out of the argument of the Israeli left.
His support for a political and physical border between Israel and the West Bank Palestinians – he's even mentioned conceding parts of Arab East Jerusalem – offends hard-core religious ideologues who rule out conceding sovereignty over any scrap of land.
Though Lieberman lives in the isolated West Bank settlement of Nokdim, support for his party among settlers was lower than the national average.
Ayalon concedes that Lieberman has not been "politically correct." But he insists that Lieberman offers "out of the box" solutions to Israel's enduring problems.
It's that perception that helped boost his power in the incoming parliament to 15 seats compared with 11 seats in the previous session. Though the core of his party support comes from immigrants from the former Soviet Union, about one-third of the votes came from native-born Israelis, known as sabras, who have despaired of the establishment politicians and prescriptions.
"It was 'in' to vote for Yisrael Beytenu. It was refreshing, with an attitude, and with a clear message," said Israeli pollster Yitzhak Katz. "There was an atmosphere of someone who was giving a simple solution."
Still, Lieberman's critique of the peace process makes him sound more in line with the right wing, which is liable to make the Americans uncomfortable.
For one, he doesn't see the Palestinian Authority as a partner for a peace agreement now. Before solving the conflict, Ayalon says, Israel and the international community first need to curb the growing power of Iran.
And the platform of Lieberman's party supports encouraging a political separation between Gaza and the West Bank – in contradiction to the longtime position of the international community that the two territories constitute a united political entity.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported today that US officials are unhappy about the prospect of an Israeli government led by Netanyahu and Lieberman, and have made their preference for a unity government known. A spokesman for the US Embassy declined comment.
Lieberman, who served as minister for strategic threats under outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert before bolting to the opposition, has already been received in the US as a top cabinet minister.
But with a record of provocative comments about Egypt, the Palestinian Authority, Iran, and Israeli Arabs, Ayalon's job now will be to help correct Lieberman's reputation.
"When people know him and know the party, I think they will realize that it is a very serious one, a very democratic one," he says. "With leaders like [Avigdor] Lieberman you can make peace.''