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.

Ronen Zvulun/AP
Kingmaker: Avigdor Lieberman endorsed Benjamin Netanyahu for Israeli prime minister Thursday.

Long disparaged as the bad boy of Israeli politics, Avigdor Lieberman has leveraged a racially divisive campaign assailing the loyalty of Israel's Arab minority to become the kingmaker of the next government.

On Thursday, Mr. Lieberman, who is leader of the right-wing Yisrael Beytenu, or "Israel Is Our Home" party, formally threw his support behind Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, nearly clinching his chances to lead a right-wing coalition. In return, Lieberman is seen as a candidate for one of three top cabinet posts: finance, defense, or foreign affairs.

Now, as the controversial politician prepares to shape Israeli policy, many are concerned that he could put Israel at odds with the United States and the international community.

Lieberman is relying on a career diplomat to help avoid such tensions.

"It's a challenge, there are a lot of misconceptions," said Danny Ayalon, a newly elected member of parliament for Lieberman's "Israel is our Home" party and a former ambassador to the US.

Mr. Ayalon predicts that international diplomats will give Lieberman a hearing despite all the criticism. "There is a recognition that Avigdor Lieberman is going to play a central role here, not just in Israeli politics but in Israeli foreign policy."

Following Lieberman's recommendation of Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said she plans to take the centrist Kadima party into the opposition rather than accept offers to join Netanyahu in a unity government.

Ayalon's most difficult task may be explaining domestic proposals that have earned Lieberman comparisons to far-right French politician Jean-Marie Le Pen.

The Moldovan-born immigrant says that Israel's Arab minorities – one-fifth of the population – threaten to destabilize the Jewish state, just as ethno-religious conflicts sowed turmoil in the Balkans. The problem is even more acute in Israel, because it sits at the "clash of civilizations" divide between the West and radical Islam.

The "Israel is Our Home" party advocates passing a law requiring Israeli citizens – including some 1.4 million Arabs – to swear loyalty to the country's Jewish symbols or lose voting rights. As part of a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israel should redraw its border with the West Bank to cede hundreds of thousands of Israeli Arabs to a Palestinian entity in return for sovereignty over Jewish settlements.

Ayalon insists that Lieberman is a pragmatist who has been unfairly attacked campaign of "name calling." Once a part of the government, the hardball rhetoric of the opposition will ease, he predicts.

Some says it's too late. After his party's recent campaign slogan of "no loyalty, no citizenship," Lieberman would be disastrous choice, says Yossi Klein Halevi, a fellow at the Shalem Center's Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies in Jerusalem.

"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."

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.''

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