Agence France Presse (AFP)
February 4, 2009 - 1:00am

Israel’s Avigdor Lieberman, much-needed iron fist to some, racist to others, is steamrolling into elections next week as the poll’s biggest spoiler, set to swing the balance of power sharply to the right.

The Soviet immigrant’s ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu (Israel is Our Home) party is poised to become parliament’s third-largest, nudging out centre-left Labour, which ruled Israel for more than half of its 60 years, polls say.

‘The winning gimmick of the 2009 elections,’ ‘the new trend,’ is how the press has described the pudgy, bearded former nightclub bouncer, whose vitriolic harangues of Israeli Arabs have previously earned him monickers of ‘fascist,’ ‘racist’ and ‘embarrassment to democracy.’

Prior to the Gaza war, Lieberman’s party was expected to keep to its 11 seats in the 120-member Knesset, most of them thanks to its core support from ‘Russians,’ fellow immigrants from the ex-Soviet Union.

But after the war, with security topping the agenda, the 50-year-old emerged as the offensive’s biggest winner as his backing surged way beyond the Russian base.

The party that first entered the Knesset 10 years ago with four seats is now predicted to get 15-18 seats.

‘The main factor at this point in time is more security than anything else. He’s more right-wing and he went on an easy slogan about the Arabs,’ said Rafi Smith, of the Smith Research Institute. ‘It works ... He’s getting support from all segments of Israeli society.’

Said Ze’ev Khamin, a political analyst at Bar-Ilan University, said: ‘For the Russians, Lieberman is their own party and on the Israeli front he is the protest party.’

The jump in support has come as Lieberman’s simple campaign messages found fertile ground among Israelis disappointed that the Gaza war ended without Hamas toppled, disenchanted with career politicians and exhausted by the region’s never-ending violence.

Ads from the other major parties are attacks on the competition, but Lieberman is focusing on himself and what he would do with his favourite target-‘disloyal’ Israeli Arabs that his Russian-language website lables ‘The Main Threat.’

The man who worked at a nightclub in the desert city of Beersheva after immigrating from Moldova in 1978 advocates booting out Arab citizens who refuse to pledge loyalty to the Jewish state.

A resident of a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank, he wants to keep major settlement blocs in exchange for transferring areas with heavy concentration of Israeli Arabs to a future Palestinian state.

He relishes sparring with his Arab colleagues in the Knesset.

‘Here’s another clown, another terrorist,’ he shot at Ahmed Tibi recently.

Replied the latter: ‘There are fascist immigrants here who want to deprive the Arabs of their right to live and be represented. We were here before you.’

Such exchanges only boost Lieberman by touching on visceral fears of his supporters, analysts say. The Russians once experienced discrimination and many in the wider Israeli community fear their Arab compatriots are a fifth column.

‘His position enjoys wide support among Russians because we’re used to being discriminated against in the Soviet Union, where we were often told to get out ... and Israeli Arabs sometimes say similar things,’ says Alexander Rieman, a historian in the southern city of Sderot.

‘The majority of Russian immigrants hold right-wing views, they think that terror should be dealt with by force, and Lieberman embodies this,’ he said.

Says Smith: ‘His attitude toward the Israeli Arabs ... attracts a lot of Israelis because many think the Israeli Arabs are not loyal ... and he’s actually saying it.’

Lieberman has built his image on statements that have sparked controversy and outrage.

In the three years since the last elections, he has called for the execution of Israeli Arab MPs who had had dealings with Hamas, for Gaza to be ‘treated like Chechnya’ and for Israel to fight Hamas ‘just like the United States did with the Japanese in World War II.’

In October, he told Hosni Mubarak to ‘go to hell’ for not coming to Israel and after Israeli leaders apologised to the Egyptian president for the remarks, slammed them for acting toward Cairo like a ‘battered wife.’

Such statements have bolstered his image as a strong hand, especially among first-time, non-Russian Israeli voters who mirror the nation’s shift to the right and are supporting him, pollsters say.

‘Lieberman is considered a strongman and the young generation is looking for a strongman,’ said Minah Tsemach, of the Dahaf Institute that conducts polls.

And he is also attracting the ‘disappointment’ vote, those who ‘despair because the three main parties look the same,’ said Smith.

‘He’s a symbol of protest and of a strong hand,’ said Khamin.

His charge toward the elections has not been slowed by warnings by leftist parties and some media that he is an extremist, or by corruption investigations that have dogged him for years and were revived only weeks ago.

‘The accusations of the police against him have helped him because some people think that he’s been persecuted by the police,’ Smith said.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017