He’s been one of the most polarizing figures in Israeli politics, a hawkish West Bank settler who once told an Egyptian president to “go to hell” and wanted Arab citizens to sign loyalty oaths.
Now Avigdor Liberman, the blunt-talking former bouncer who engineered Benjamin Netanyahu’s first electoral victory in 1996, has brought the prime minister to his knees. The former defense and foreign minister rejected any compromise on his proposed bill to draft more ultra-Orthodox Jewish men into the military, blocking Netanyahu’s efforts to form his fifth government. Instead, the Knesset voted early Thursday to disband and send Israelis back to the ballot box in September.
Liberman, who grew up in Moldova and still speaks with a heavy Russian accent, said his Yisrael Beitenu party “won’t be partners in a government run according to Jewish religious law.” He dismissed Netanyahu’s claims that he is to blame for the political turmoil.
Liberman has aspirations to replace Netanyahu one day, and right now, he’s trying to set the agenda by tapping into resentment over military exemptions for ultra-Orthodox men, and stipends the government pays them to pursue religious study, said Yonatan Freeman, a political science lecturer at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“He can get tons of votes both from the left and the right” with that message, Freeman said.
Liberman is a veteran of Netanyahu’s Likud party who bolted to form Yisrael Beitenu in 1999, and the two have had a turbulent history of breakups and reconciliations. His party originally catered to the nearly 1 million Russians who emigrated to Israel after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but Liberman increasingly competes for right-wing votes with Netanyahu himself.
The party won as many as 15 of parliament’s 120 seats in 2009, then saw its appeal dwindle as Russian immigrants integrated deeper into Israeli society. In April’s election the party won just five seats, but Liberman demonstrated Wednesday that he remains a force to be reckoned with: Without him, Netanyahu didn’t have a majority government.
It’s not only his faceoff with the ultra-Orthodox that has gained Liberman notoriety.
Although he’s moderated his rhetoric in recent years, in the past he said Israeli Arab lawmakers who met with the Gaza Strip’s Hamas leaders — whom Israel considers terrorists — should be executed. He’s also proposed redrawing Israel’s borders to put Arab communities under Palestinian control.
Liberman also takes a dim view of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, saying “everything he does is pure diplomatic terror” and dismissing him as “not a partner for anything.”
Accusing Israeli Arabs of disloyalty, Liberman unsuccessfully demanded that all Israeli citizens take a loyalty oath. In 2008 he said Egypt’s then-president Hosni Mubarak could “go to hell” because he refused to visit Israel despite the countries’ peace treaty.
Signs of Pragmatism But there are also glimmers of pragmatism. He has served in centrist Israeli governments, including Netanyahu’s most recent coalition, which he resigned to protest policies he considered too soft on Hamas. As defense minister under Netanyahu, he didn’t follow a precept he once prescribed: reoccupying Gaza to halt rocket attacks from the territory.
“He has always been a tough talker, but in the day-to-day he was pretty pragmatic,” Hebrew University political science professor Gideon Rahat said. “On the one hand he’s right and pro-settlement, but at one time at least, he had a program that included territorial swaps and some territorial concessions. He’s a mix of hawk and pragmatic.”
As September elections loom, Liberman is portraying himself as more hawkish than Netanyahu. He’s also trying to draw back Russian-speaking voters who strayed from his party but resent the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate because they’re not Jewish according to religious law, said Professor Asher Maoz, dean of the law school at the Peres Academic Center.
“I imagine he figures he’ll do better in the next election,” Maoz said. “He’s riding the anti-ultra-Orthodox hobby horse to win secular voters, and maybe bring back Russians.”