Friday 26 February 2010

Da Lieberman

Israel's foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has been in the news a great deal recently. He has proved to be an outspoken and a divisive figure during his time in Israeli politics. Besides his public persona which has become better known in recent times, not a great deal is known about Avigdor Lieberman. I wish to use this opportunity to examine Lieberman in a bit more detail, particularly looking at the man behind the public figure.

Evet Lieberman was born in the former Soviet republic of Moldova in 1958. He immigrated to Israel with his family when he was 20 years old. Although he changed his name to Avigdor upon arrival in Israel and this is the name that he is officially known by, most of his associates still know him as Evet. Upon arrival in Israel, he served in the IDF Artillery Corps and then attended the Hebrew University of Jerusalem where he earned a BA degree in International Relations and Political Science.

Although he was active in political circles during his student days, his first major political break came when he was appointed as director-general of the Likud party in 1993 following the election of Bibi Netanyahu as the party's chairman. When Bibi was elected prime minister in 1996, it was natural that Evet would be the director-general of the prime minister's office.

It was in 1999 that Lieberman was first elected to the Knesset. He had founded the Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is our home) party which catered mostly to the Russian immigrant community in Israel, and competed directly with Sharansky's Yisrael Ba'Aliyah party. In fact, Lieberman established the party to protest the way that Sharansky responded to the Wye Plantation negotiations, in which Netanyahu offered significant concessions to Arafat. Although Yisrael Ba'Aliyah achieved 6 seats in the Knesset as opposed to Yisrael Beiteinu's 4 seats, it was clear that Lieberman would present a major challenge to Sharansky and his party in the future.

After a short link-up with the National Union Party, Yisrael Beiteinu returned to fight the 2006 election on its own. The slogan "Da Lieberman" (Yes Lieberman) was used, showing two important facts. The first was the fact that the party was still focused on the Russian immigrant community. The second was the way in which Lieberman's personal appeal was viewed as being a vote-winner for the party. Many cynics made a play on the word "da", which is used in English slang as response to a statement which is stupid or obvious. In the event, it seems as if the tactics worked, as the party secured an increase to 11 seats in the Knesset.

Lieberman served as minister of national infrastructure and minister of tourism for short periods of time prior to the 2009 general election. In this election, his party attracted further support and emerged with 15 seats as the third largest party in the Knesset. As an important coalition partner, Lieberman was now able to demand and get, the foreign ministry portfolio for himself.

In truth, it is difficult to find a less diplomatic figure for the role of foreign minister, even in the very undiplomatic world of Israeli politics. I find the nomination of Lieberman to this post to be one which is detrimental to the cause of the State of Israel in the foreign community, especially at a time when international diplomacy is increasingly important. A number of recent gaffes, most notably the recent stand-off with Turkey, point to the damage that Lieberman is doing. He is wholly unsuitable for such a position.

Having said that, he does possess a number of virtues worthy of mention. His relationship with the Kremlin is an asset that needs to be carefully nurtured. Russia seems to be supporting Iran's nuclear and weapons aspirations, thereby bringing significant further risk to Israel and instability to the Middle East as a whole. Lieberman is the only senior Israeli with the sort of links to Moscow that may be able to change or divert this policy. Despite the fact that his efforts have not really borne any fruits to date, it is my view that this endeavour should be occupying most of Lieberman's time and efforts.

Evet is also willing to say the things that many Israelis would like to say, but are somewhat reluctant to express. One of his election platforms in 2009 was to deny Israeli citizenship from Arabs who are not loyal to the state. This is something that many Israelis believe in, although it is recognised that implementing such a policy may ultimately be more detrimental than helpful in the current state of Middle East politics. Lieberman has a following of right-wingers which far exceeds the community of former Russians that he focuses his election platforms on. He is also viewed as the protector of secular rights, and has been campaigning to open establishments on Shabbat and allow civil marriage in Israel. The religious camp, however, remains too strong at the current time for Lieberman to succeed in implementing such changes.

What is interesting about Lieberman when considering his right-wing views, is his attitude regarding the West Bank settlement of Nokdim where he has lived with his family since 1988. Lieberman is on record as saying that he would be prepared to vacate his home as part of a peace agreement. This may be viewed as somewhat surprising to those who view Lieberman as the epitome of the Israeli right-wing, which generally represents the attitude of hanging onto the West Bank almost at any price. It certainly shows a slightly different side to his right-wing views.

Despite Lieberman being labelled as something of a thug, I believe that people like Lieberman do have a place in Israeli politics. Although I feel that his place is not as minister of foreign affairs, it is Knesset seats that count when the portfolios are divided up. This sometimes dictates that people who are not the most suitable for the job will get it due to the power of their Knesset seats. Whilst I hope that he continues to speak his mind and to represent those that support his views, I also hope that the establishment is sensible enough to keep him on a short leash to prevent him from doing any damage to the land that he clearly loves dearly. Most of all, I hope that his efforts with Putin and Medvedev will be successful to take some of the intensity and instability out of the Middle East, and to prevent Russia from arming our enemies.

As an immigrant to Israel, Lieberman has certainly shown what immigrants to this country can achieve. Whether one agrees with his policies or not, one has to give him credit for his achievements under difficult circumstances.

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