Avigdor Lieberman at the Knesset, June 2013.
Avigdor Lieberman at the Knesset, June 2013. Photo by Emil Salman
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Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman addressed members of New York’s Russian Jewish community on Sunday, praising Russian-born immigrants who have succeeded in Israeli politics, and wondering aloud if a Russian-speaking prime minister is imminent.

"Only in Israel could the likes of MK Yuli Edelstein or Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky rise to their positions,” Lieberman said to a crowd at a synagogue in Brighton Beach, the heart of the Russian immigrant enclave in southern Brooklyn, which is also known as "Little Odessa."

"Only in Israel, can a young Russian immigrant arrive and in twenty years become foreign minister. One day we will have a Russian-speaking minister of defense, a Russian-speaking president, and soon we may have a Russian-speaking prime minister," he added.

Hosted by the Russian American Jewish Experience, the American Forum of Russian Jewry, the Council of Jewish Emigre Community Organizations, the Russian American Foundation and the World Zionist Organization, the event was open to the public and held at the Jewish Center of Brighton Beach, which serves as both an Orthodox synagogue and community center.

As the audience waited for the speaker to arrive, local Russian community leaders introduced Lieberman with long flowery speeches, describing him as a fearless leader of Israel - where "rockets continue to fall and kill innocent civilians" – and invoking such historical events as the Spanish Inquisition, the pogroms and Israel’s wars.

Lieberman, as one would expect, was received quite well – somewhat like a celebrity returning to his hometown – in this modest synagogue with its scratched wooden pews and fading carpet. His audience ranged from teenagers to war veterans, with faces and accents originating everywhere from Lvov to Tashkent to St. Petersburg, Tblisi and Simferopol.

The minister arrived after a speaking engagement in Manhattan, and seemed to breathe easier when speaking in Russian: "After all the presentations, in New York and later in Washington, the best is always here in Brooklyn, in Brighton Beach, with one's own landsmen. The knowledge of your support, regardless of the ocean between us, is so dear to us in Israel."

Turning to politics, Lieberman insisted that the Middle East is not suffering from the Palestinian problem, but rather from the gaps between “a few oligarchs” and starving masses. "This socioeconomic problem... is the main problem of the Middle East: the lack of a middle class. The Arab world must reconstruct itself.”

In regards to the Iranian nuclear threat and other issues affecting the Jewish state, he said the problem does not lie with Israel.

“The problem," Lieberman asserted, "is not that we don't want peace. The problem lies with the Arab leaders who consistently incite against Israel and against peace among their constituents. The Palestinians’ problem is artificial, man-made, a problem created by Arab leaders. We are ready for peace, but we are even more ready to defend our borders and our right to this land... And we are ready for major waves of aliyah in the near future as well," he said, adding as is customary at the end of the Passover seder: "Next year in Jerusalem!"

Asked about the Ukrainian crisis, he responded carefully: "Israel has excellent relations with Russia, Ukraine and the United States, and the main concern is the security of the Jewish community there. We are doing important and quiet work in keeping the Jewish community safely out of this fight."

It was perhaps ironic to witness Lieberman remaining mostly silent on the Russian front, while listing the problems in the Arab world – suppression of the media, rampant corruption, oppressive minority rule over poor majorities, a fading middle class, homophobia, etc. – problems that Russia can be seen to suffer from as well.

After a standing ovation, Lieberman left for his next engagement: a fundraising dinner on behalf of the pro-Israel American Forum for Russian Jewry at the extravagant Romanov Palace in Brighton Beach (formerly Rasputin Supper Club), where more landsmen were to honor the minister, caviar and all.