By Lily Galili
The young waitress in the Tel Aviv hotel lobby can't hide her excitement. The most controversial politician in Israel is here, ever impatient and attired in his trademark perfectly tailored suit. All eyes, in fact, are on Avigdor Lieberman, the new deputy prime minister and unabashed right-wing politician who has earned the world's scorn, for, among many other things, his call to execute fellow Knesset members who dare to meet with members of the Palestinian group Hamas. Not to mention his call for Israeli air strikes against Iranian and Egyptian cities or his plan to revoke the citizenship of Israeli Arabs, whom he'd deport to a future Palestinian state.
As he sips a glass of red wine (he grimaces; it doesn't meet his standards), the subject of this commotion acts as if he doesn't hear the whispers or notice the stares. In over twelve years of following Lieberman's political career for the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, I've noticed that he never flirts with crowds. It is hard to call Lieberman charismatic. A heavy-faced, bearded man, he still hasn't lost his thick Russian accent and is far from a great orator. Yet somehow, Lieberman -- whose current popularity is rivaled only by that of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- never fails to deliver what many Israelis want.
"There is no ‘new' Middle East," he tells me. Lieberman rejects outright the notion of a contained Israeli-Palestinian conflict. According to him, "whoever thinks so, is plain stupid. We face an existential threat. It's really about the survival of the fittest, and with neighbors like Syria, Iraq and even Egypt, we have to be realistic. We are not, being Jewish. It is a genetic disease. When Hitler came to power, we chose to look the other way. That's now the attitude toward [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad. There is no difference between him and Hitler, and we fail to understand it. That's pathological behavior."
In a world of polished, westernized Israeli politicians such as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Netanyahu, the 48-year-old Lieberman stands out. Any American notions of political correctness are absent from his vocabulary. "The leadership of Hamas needs to go to heaven," he once quipped about the Palestinian Authority's new governing party. "Heaven," by the way, is the same response he gives when asked how he is doing, especially when things are looking bad for him.
As we talk, though, things are looking pretty good. Back in 2004, he was fired as transportation minister by then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for his opposition to the Gaza withdrawal. Today, he is the head of Israel Beiteinu (Israel is Our Home), a party he founded in 1999, which draws most of its support from Israel's one million immigrants from the former Soviet Union. He has re-emerged as a strange hybrid of an Israeli version of Jean-Marie Le Pen (the infamous French extreme right-winger) and respectable statesman.
When Olmert's centrist Kadima party failed to capture a majority in the elections last March and had to enter into a national coalition government with Labor, Lieberman was the big winner. Israel Beiteinu won eleven seats and Olmert, in need of political allies, was forced to invite Lieberman to join his cabinet, inventing a new portfolio for him called "minister of strategic affairs." Lieberman actually had been eyeing the internal security portfolio as his price for joining Olmert's coalition, but Attorney General Menachem Mazuz dashed that hope because of an ongoing investigation into corruption allegations against him.
The fact that, as strategic affairs minister, Lieberman is now in charge of drafting Israel's post-Lebanon foreign policy makes his opponents, who've dubbed their nemesis "minister for threats," nervous. But they're even more uneasy about his ambition to become prime minister. Lieberman is frank about his hope to use his new post as a stepping-stone to take over Olmert's. "Yes, that's the plan," he tells me. "Still, I'm not obsessed," he says, immodestly adding, in case I haven't noticed, "Do you know any other Israeli politician who can single-handedly obtain eleven seats in the Knesset?"
What made Lieberman's role as Israel's power-broker possible was not only Olmert's need for a political ally but the leadership vacuum in Israel, observes Gad Barzilai, a political scientist from Tel Aviv University. "This is exactly what makes him so dangerous," he says. "He's the only one who offers a formula."