Hugh Naylor
The National (Opinion)
December 21, 2010 - 1:00am

Of Israel's roughly 120 West Bank settlements, why, one might ask, would Avigdor Lieberman choose to live in Nokdim?

The isolated community, about a 20-minute drive from Jerusalem, lacks a single shop or restaurant to entertain Israel's foreign minister and his wife, Ella. State-provided armoured vehicles and bodyguards must shuttle Israel's top diplomat through a labyrinth of Palestinian villages and checkpoints for his 20-minute commute into Israel proper.

Even his own commitment to Nokdim would seem questionable. Last year, the country's most controversial politician publicly, if reluctantly, said he was willing to evacuate it if there were a final agreement with the Palestinians. That would have seemed a useful gesture to reiterate before the direct Israeli-Palestinian talks collapsed this month, in part, because of construction on settlements like his.

Yet the defiant voice of Israel's far right shows no sign of moving out of this community of 200 secular, Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jewish families because it would represent one thing - surrender.

To abandon his home there would be tantamount to abandoning Nokdim's rabbi, Yaron Durani, and the rest of Mr Lieberman's supporters who are ideologically committed to Israel's military occupation of land that Palestinians want for their future state.

"He is down to earth, one of us," said the rabbi describing the 52-year-old foreign minister, whose secular outlook may not exactly match the rabbi's biblical view of Israel's boundaries.

Opponents, on the other hand, see the pro-settler, highly divisive minister differently. Fascist, racist and, perhaps above all, opportunistic are how many have characterised him and Yisrael Beiteinu, the ultra-nationalist party that he founded a decade ago.

Emerging from obscurity a decade ago, Yisrael Beiteinu is now the third-largest party in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, holding 15 of 120 seats. Drawing support from roughly a million Soviet émigrés who flooded Israel with an aggressive sense of Jewish nationalism at the end of the Cold War, Mr Lieberman and his party now have considerable power.

Alongside his duties as foreign minister, he makes virtually every decision for the party, such as personally selecting its list of parliamentarians, which includes at least two former female models, rather than holding a party vote.

The party campaigned in the 2009 elections on a "no loyalty - no citizenship" platform. And it sponsored legislation passed by the cabinet last month that called on non-Jews seeking Israeli citizenship to pledge their allegiance to Israel as a "Jewish and democratic" state.

The party has advocated transferring Israeli Arab citizens into a future Palestinian state in return for retaining settlements, just one of its efforts to preserve Israel's Jewish majority. It is a strategy critics decry as tantamount to ethnic cleansing.

Israel's Arabs, whom Mr Lieberman has publicly likened to traitors, have recoiled at both ideas, suspecting them as part of a campaign to erode their rights as citizens.

"I once told him that the word 'racist' would be a compliment for him," said Jamal Zhalkha, the chairman of Balad, an Arab party in the Knesset, recalling a recent encounter with Mr Lieberman.

Mr Zhalkha remembers Mr Lieberman's antics well before the days when, for example, as the transportation minister in 2004 he surprised a visiting Russian delegation with a bizarre "Separation of Nations" proposal as an alternative to plans to dismantle settlements in the Gaza Strip. He was subsequently sacked by the prime minister of the time, Ariel Sharon, a hero of the Israeli right, for opposing the Gaza pull-out.

At Hebrew University, when not studying for his political science degree, Mr Lieberman was accused of participating in right-wing student organisations that incited violence against Arabs. Mr Zhalkha, a fellow student of his in the early 1980s, recalled how at rallies the future foreign minister, in broken, heavily accented Hebrew, physically assaulted Arab students.

"After that," Mr Zhalkha recalled, "he became a member of the Knesset, and after that he became a minister."

Mr Lieberman, born in present-day Moldova, part of the former Soviet Union, immigrated to Israel in 1978. Critics say his ultra-nationalism stems from his respect for Russia's autocratic tendencies.

The former US president Bill Clinton has called those of Mr Lieberman's background a considerable impediment to peace, describing Israel's Soviet émigrés as an intransigent demographic when it came to compromise with the Palestinians.

"An increasing number of the young people in [Israel's military] are the children of Russians and settlers, the hardest-core people against a division of the land," Mr Clinton said in September during his Clinton Global Initiative conference in New York. "This presents a staggering problem," he said.

In a 2007 article in The Atlantic, an American magazine, Mr Lieberman alluded to this uncompromising positions, saying that he read Peter the First, a novel about the monarch who forced modernisation onto Russia in the 17th century, "at least 300 times".

After spending the better part of a decade in the Soviet military, Mr Lieberman's father was forced into exile for 10 years in Siberia. Mr Lieberman's stance on Israel's Arabs has drawn comparisons to Joseph Stalin, the Soviet premier known for his imprisonment of Jews and dissidents.

Knesset members have in the past publicly likened him to Stalin, but citing concern over upsetting the increasingly powerful foreign minister, several of them declined an interview for this article.

Gideon Rahat, a professor of political science at Hebrew University, believes a more apt comparison is to Vladimir Putin, Russia's strongman prime minister.

"He has nothing to do with communism, but he also is not a believer in democracy, especially liberal democracy," said Prof Rahat. "He's like Putin and others in Russia who believe that democracy should have a limited role."

And like Mr Putin, he said, Mr Lieberman had thrived at political opportunism. This has been evident in his public contradictions of his primary rival for leadership of the right, Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who is attempting negotiations with the Palestinians.

While theoretically part of Mr Netanyahu's government, the foreign minister has publicly opposed his boss's agreeing to the one-year time frame to conclude the talks.

During a speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September, Mr Lieberman stunned the audience by proposing a plan to draw out a resolution to the conflict over the course of decades.

He infuriated French and Spanish diplomats in October by telling them to "solve your own problems in Europe before you come to us with complaints" about the peace negotiations.

"Lieberman's obviously viewed as an extremist, right-wing, warmongering politician, and he's on the extreme right of an extreme right-wing government. The question is why Netanyahu's letting him speak like this," said George Giacaman, a Palestinian political analyst and co-founder of the Palestinian Institute for the Study of Democracy.

Indeed, if anyone should take warning, it may very well be Mr Netanyahu and the Likud party that he heads.

If the prime minster is seen as heeding American and Palestinian demands during negotiations, his pro-settler coalition could crumble. If he does not, then the negotiations might.

Either way, Mr Lieberman and his party may benefit. Even amid allegations of corruption, which he denies, in a police investigation that could result in his indictment, his popularity only seems to grow.

Avraham Diskin, a professor of political science at Hebrew University, said this partly had to do with general Israeli scepticism of peace negotiations.

"Given that pessimism, they've moved toward a more right-wing position," he said.

That may explain the appeal of Yisrael Beiteinu, which Mr Diskin said was now drawing support from a wider base of voters than just Soviet immigrants.

Danny Hershtal, a spokesman for Yisrael Beiteinu and a friend of Mr Lieberman's, agreed. "We certainly have reached out to all segments of Israeli society, and the numbers like us are growing," Mr Hershtal said, describing the foreign minister's qualities as hard-working and straight-talking.

Back in Nokdim, Rabbi Durani described the Lieberman family as committed members of the small community.

Asked if he thought the foreign minister would ever relocate inside Israel proper, the rabbi said: "This is inside Israel."


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