I wasn't planning to do another Israel post so soon, but this guy absolutely fascinates me...and has the potential to become a real wild card in our (or anyone's) relations with Israel. Meet Avigdor Lieberman, the man who seemingly came from nowhere to become one of the biggest players on the Israeli political scene. He wont be Prime Minister after next Tuesday's election - that fight is between Tzipi Livni and Benjamin Netanyahu - but the performance of his Yisrael Beiteinu Party will likely determine who does get the big office, and he is going to land a BIG cabinet job regardless. Right now five of the six top stories on the Jerusalem Post's "Election '09" page are about Lieberman or his party, and the banner at the top of the page was edited yesterday to add his picture alongside the leaders of the three major parties. Not bad, considering that Lieberman built his party entirely from scratch in only ten years. So, who is this guy, and how did he pull off one of the most surprising and meteoric rises in world politics?
In a former life, Lieberman was a big player in the Likud Party, and even worked as Director-General of the Prime Minister's Office during Benjamin Netanyahu's first stint as Prime Minister. But in 1999 he ditched Likud and started a new far-right party from scratch, calling it Yisrael Beiteinu ("Israel Our Home"). An unabashed nationalist, Lieberman became known for his harsh anti-Arab rhetoric - demanding that Israeli Arabs swear loyalty to Israel or be stripped of their citizenship - and his controversial peace plan. "The Lieberman Plan" calls for a two-state solution in which predominantly Arab towns in Israel would be traded to Palestine in return for Israeli settlements in the Palestinian Territories.
Yisrael Beiteinu was primarily composed of Russian Jewish immigrants who came to Israel in the late 20th century (Lieberman himself came from Moldova in 1978), and was able to quickly capitalize on support from the immigrant community. Hence, they won four seats in the Knesset (or Parliament) in the 1999 elections, and Lieberman entered the Knesset for the first time not as a mere freshman legislator, but as the leader of a new political movement. He quickly merged Yisrael Beiteinu into the National Union, a coalition of far-right parties that function as one in elections, and contested the 2003 election under their banner. However, he seems to have realized that the Union was holding him back, and Yisrael Beiteinu contested the 2006 election on their own. He made the right move, and Yisrael Beiteinu rocketed to prominence by winning 11 seats.
While the 2006 showing was impressive, it now seems to have been merely warm-up for next week - when Yisrael Beiteinu will likely become Israel's fourth major political party (the other three being Labor, Likud, and Kadima). Polls currently show Lieberman's forces winning between 18 and 20 seats in the Knesset, and still climbing. The Labor Party, once the dominant force in Israeli politics, appears to be eating Yisrael Beiteinu's dust in the race for third place, and the leaders of Likud and Kadima are rushing to kiss up to the suddenly-popular Avigdor Lieberman.
While Lieberman has expressed his desire to join a government led by Benjamin Netanyahu and the right-wing Likud Party, he may actually be sabotaging that party's chances. Likud voters, disillusioned with their party's drift to the center, are hemorrhaging to Yisrael Beiteinu. Hence, Netanyahu is quickly running back to the right and trying to woo back voters with the promise that Lieberman will get a senior ministry in his cabinet. Meanwhile, Kadima leader Tzipi Livni is also trying to cash in on Lieberman's sudden popularity by publicly declaring that he would be an acceptable coalition partner in her government (despite Lieberman's statements to the contrary).
So, what does this mean for the US? Well, it looks like Lieberman will land one of the major cabinet ministries under either Netanyahu or Livni...meaning he will either be Foreign Minister, Defense Minister, or Finance Minister. If he lands the Foreign Ministry, equivalent to the U.S. Secretary of State, our diplomats will suddenly be dealing with a controversial firebrand as their Isreali counterpart. I said yesterday that Netanyahu might have personality issues with Barack Obama...but there could be even more tension between Hillary Clinton and Avigdor Lieberman. However, I would expect Lieberman to be kept away from the Foreign Ministry, as tact and diplomacy are not his strong suits. More likely, he will be handed the Defense Ministry, putting him in charge of the Israeli military...and if anyone takes less flak from terrorists than Benjamin Netanyahu, it's Avigdor Lieberman. So, having both of them in power simultaneously would be bad news for Israel's enemies. Then again, Yisrael Beiteinu might actually be responsible for installing a leftist government, as they could split the right wing vote with Netanyahu - allowing the dovish Tzipi Livni to run up the middle and become Prime Minister.
Now, to be clear, my endorsement in these elections goes to Netanyahu and Likud. Lieberman is just a tad too radical in his nationalism for my liking, and his distaste for Israeli Arabs doesn't sit quite right with me. That said, it is hard not to admire his work in building Yisrael Beiteinu into a national force so quickly - and it will be hard to ignore the mark he leaves on the Middle East.