Yisrael Beiteinu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman met last week with students at Bar-Ilan University, ostensibly on home court.
When you smile your eyes laugh too, they crinkle up a bit. Not Avigdor Lieberman's, at least not this past Tuesday at Bar-Ilan University. When Lieberman smiles (few people have caught him laughing) his lips stretch, but his eyes remain wide open, following everything suspiciously.
Lieberman doesn't trust anyone. Not the Arabs, not the goyim, certainly not the leftists and not even the audience sitting in front of him. He has good reason to be suspicious. Before he explains his diplomatic-political philosophy, he has to check to whom he is selling it. The audience in Bar-Ilan is ostensibly a comfortable one for Lieberman, and Bar-Ilan is ostensibly a home court. It's not the University of Haifa, but they aren't awaiting him with enthusiasm. Nor are they opposed to him.
Since Yigal Amir, who studied at Bar-Ilan, the university has had a very cautious attitude toward politics. The students union chairman opens with good wishes to our soldiers and embraces for the beleaguered southern communities, declares that Gilad Shalit is planted deep in our hearts and hints that in the past, the wars belonged to the kibbutznikim, but today? Look who's fighting today.
At the foot of the stage a young, determined student activist is walking around in a students union T-shirt. One can picture him 20 years from now, sitting in a crowded room, perusing a list of those to be eliminated from the election primaries.
Meanwhile the auditorium becomes a little more than half-full. Skullcap wearers slightly outnumber those with bare heads. There are some whose skullcaps are attached firmly to their heads with a clip, and some whose skullcaps are randomly placed, not far from their foreheads. To such an audience you don't sell religious tolerance and you're cautious about discussing religion and state. You don't tell them that there are 320,000 non-Jewish immigrants from the Commonwealth of Independent States in Israel, a large percentage of whom will vote for the speaker.
In Bar-Ilan Lieberman explains that Judaism is a ticket without which there is no entry into Israel. Is that racism? What are you talking about? Look, take Arnold Schwarzenegger for example. He can be the governor of California, but not the president of the United States. Why? Because he was born in Austria. Even the Americans know how to be a little bit racist when necessary. I look around me and I don't believe my eyes, he says. A real theater of the absurd. Like - ah, ah - Ionesco. Yes. What does he consider so absurd? He doesn't understand how politicians suddenly become ministers. Absurd! Did they ever run anything? After all, the only thing that interests them is the primaries.
A country, he says, is like a business - you have to know how to run it. Lieberman knows what he's talking about. After all, he was a minister three times. He was minister of national infrastructure with achievements that have yet to be publicized. He was also a minister of transportation who brought Ben-Gurion International Airport (together with former transportation minister Meir Sheetrit and the incumbent Shaul Mofaz) to a level that endangers passenger security. In his most recent position, as minister of strategic affairs, he set a precedent for the job.
But let's talk about the world a little. It's a fact that the entire world is against us, and there is no need for Lieberman to add anything. But the world is also totally ignorant and he refuses to remain silent on that point. Former British prime minister Tony Blair, for example. Lieberman happens to like him. A cultured guy, an educated guy, but what naivete! What ignorance! Blair thinks that the Palestinian problem is the focus of the conflagration in the Middle East. And what about the Iraqis who slaughtered the Iranians, the former minister for strategic affairs scolds him, and what about the Jordanians who killed Palestinians? He - of course - is sorry about innocent victims, but like Golda Meir, he is not willing to forgive the Palestinians for forcing him to kill them.
Lieberman is not a great speaker. Half an hour into his speech many people are stretching and yawning. Lieberman is wearing a gray suit and a loosely-knotted black-and-red tie. His head, in the absence of a visible neck, is stuck deep between his shoulders and he speaks in a slow and relaxed manner. Although he immigrated to Israel over 30 years ago, he is still not familiar with the prefix "ha" (the equivalent of the article "the," that does not exist in Russian).
Sometimes he doesn't understand why people are angry at him. What does he want, after all? A normal country with a powerful president and a small number of political parties. Like who? Like Cyprus. Why Cyprus of all places? Because there, he says, they separated the nations: Greeks in one place and Turks in another. Let's take the Israeli Arabs with their villages and transfer them there, to Palestine. The audience is alert. Is Lieberman giving shape to his vision of the Palestinian state before their eyes? Does he really favor two states for two nations with a small transfer for added spice? Maybe it really was worth coming.
But he doesn't get bogged down in details: I'm not returning territories, he declares, and that's that. He's not distributing gifts. Here Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu would have paused for applause, but Lieberman is not Bibi and the students are looking at their watches.
After a 45-minute speech, Lieberman allots time for three questions. Many students have questions. The students are accustomed to bringing speeches to the question-and-answer period, in which they spell out their worldview at length and in great detail. Then they ask the speaker to discuss it. Lieberman listens carefully to the questions and makes sure not to answer a single one.
Someone tries to outsmart Lieberman and asks what will happen to Arabs who declare loyalty to the state as required, but according to Lieberman are fated to move with their community to the new Palestine. Lieberman calls the questioner a "wise guy" and quickly escapes into the warm embrace of the "Iranian danger." After all, we all agree that it's a real danger, he says. Yossi Beilin wants to give them a slap in the face from the left, and I want to do so from the right, so what's the difference? The main thing is unity, and if the Iranian threat does not unify us then what will?