From the start of Avigdor Lieberman’s political career, including his early stint as an aide to Israel’s current president Benjamin Netanyahu in 1988 and later director-general of the Likud party from 1993-1996, he has been a controversial figure.
Known for his frequently outrageous statements and proposals, such as the suggestion that Israel bomb Egypt’s Aswan Dam, Lieberman’s political attacks usually originate in extreme nationalist views that sometimes border on racist. This makes it all the more surprising that, as defence minister in Netanyahu’s most recent coalition government, Lieberman cultivated an image as a serious, restrained and reasonable member of the Knesset (parliament). His resignation from Likud in 2018 over his objections to what he saw as Netanyahu’s weakness regarding Hamas in Gaza, precipitated the elections in April 2019.
Born Evet Lieberman in 1958 in Moldova, he emigrated to Israel with his family in 1978, ten years before the influx of Soviet Jews, and Hebraized his name to Avigdor. From his earliest days in Israel, he was associated with right-wing and sometimes violent politics aligned with the Likud party. In time, he moved to the Nokdim settlement in the West Bank, where he continues to live. He has served in various positions in all the cabinets appointed by Netanyahu since 1997, although not always as a Likud member. In 1997, he formed a new political party, Yisrael Beiteinu (‘our home’), which primarily represented the ‘Russian’ immigrants arriving in droves from the former Soviet Union. This group was generally conservative in its outlook, in reaction to the communist system it had left behind. It was also mainly secular and included a large number of non-Jews, primarily spouses who had arrived with their Jewish partners and been granted Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. This law grants automatic citizenship to anyone with a Jewish grandparent or spouse. Paradoxically, the religious authorities recognize as Jewish only those born of a Jewish mother. Since marriage, divorce and burial in Israel all fall under the purview of the religious authorities, this difference in recognition of personal status can, and does, affect the lives of a significant portion of the immigrants from the former Soviet Union (up to 400,000 by one estimate).
Thus, Lieberman, himself secular although the son of Jewish parents, based his political strength on representing this large secular – and often nationalistic – electorate. He entered the Knesset when his new party ran for the first time in the 1999 elections (in which Netanyahu lost to Ehud Barak). His party won only four of the 120 Knesset seats. When Likud returned to power under Ariel Sharon in 2001, Lieberman was named minister of infrastructure. He left that position after a year but was appointed transport minister under Netanyahu in 2003. In those elections, Lieberman’s party ran together with the extreme right-wing National Union, winning seven seats. He was ousted from Sharon’s centrist second government and ultimately took his party out of the coalition in opposition to Sharon’s decision to unilaterally withdraw both the Israeli army and the settlers from the Gaza Strip.
In the next elections in 2006, Lieberman’s party ran on its own quite successfully, winning 11 seats. It joined the centrist coalition led by Ehud Olmert, and Lieberman was given the positions of deputy prime minister and the newly created minister for strategic affairs. He did not last long in that coalition either, as Olmert began pursuing a peace agreement with the Palestinians that involved ceding territory, which Lieberman vehemently opposed.
His fortunes were reversed when Yisrael Beiteinu became the third largest party in the 2009 elections with 15 seats, and Netanyahu named him deputy prime minister as well as foreign affairs minister. He merged his party with Likud and ran with it in the 2012 elections. At this time, Lieberman publicly demanded he be named defence minister, a frightening prospect for many liberals given his past calls for the introduction of the death penalty (for terrorists), loyalty oaths as a condition for Israeli citizenship and the right to vote, boycotts of Arab merchants and a plan to transfer majority Arab areas in the north of the country to the Palestinian Authority in exchange for territory in the West Bank.
As already noted, it was surprising that Lieberman cultivated a moderate image as defence minister, a position Netanyahu finally gave him in 2016. Lieberman returned to form when he resigned from the coalition in November 2018 in protest at Netanyahu’s failure to take a strong stand against Hamas. Despite being instrumental in Netanyahu’s political success, Lieberman became the prime minister’s nemesis when Likud tried to form a ruling coalition following the April 2019 elections. Although it garnered only five seats, Yisrael Beiteinu was nonetheless critical for reaching the 61 seats Netanyahu needed for a majority. Lieberman withheld them, however, demanding agreement on legislation to draft ultra-Orthodox men into the army. The demand was clearly intended to sabotage the coalition as the ultra-Orthodox parties, with their 16 seats, would refuse to accept such an agreement. Netanyahu’s failure to form a coalition resulted in the dissolution of the parliament in May and new elections set for 17 September.
There are many theories about the motives behind Lieberman’s actions, especially since he has repeatedly come out in favour of Netanyahu as the next prime minister, preferably heading a national unity government made up exclusively of Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu and the centrist Blue and White. Even so, he continues to vilify Netanyahu in the run-up to the elections.
Moreover, Lieberman has styled himself as the champion of secular Israelis, a tactic that appears to be working. The polls indicate that his party could win as many as 11 seats in the upcoming elections, double the number in April. This suggests he is succeeding in attracting voters beyond his traditional ‘Russian’ base.
One of the startling aspects of his growing popularity is that the public appears to have forgotten accusations of criminality within his party and even convictions of leading party members, including former Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov and deputy minister Faina Kirschenbaum. Lieberman himself was under investigation for taking bribes, among other charges, for over 12 years. He stood trial in 2013 but was acquitted because of lack of evidence of criminal dealings.
He will most likely still hold the key to the next coalition, for Likud or for the rival Blue and White, led by Netanyahu’s former chief of staff Benny Gantz. Once again, it may not be clear why Lieberman is intent on foiling Netanyahu, except if he believes he will soon be elected prime minister himself.