The Hilltop Youth From Nokdim

Some people are pushed by their troubles to find religion; Lieberman's troubles are pushing him to connect with his inner settler.

One morning, Citizen A. woke up and discovered that he is a settler. And not just a settler, but a "hilltop youth" from Nokdim.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has lived in his tiny settlement for years, but it is hard to say that his place of residence was a foundational element of his identity. The settlers never saw him as flesh of their flesh, and Lieberman even gave up on their votes. In truth, it is very hard to picture him wearing a windbreaker and sandals.

But all that has now changed. French President Nicolas Sarkozy is urging his replacement; Defense Minister Ehud Barak has been sent in his stead to conduct negotiations with U.S. envoy George Mitchell; the world rejects him; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not exactly defending his foreign minister; persistent media reports claim that the police case against him is being finalized; and the media wonders what exactly Israel's foreign minister is doing.

Some people are pushed by their troubles to find religion; Lieberman's troubles are pushing him to connect with his inner settler. At a recent press conference, which took place while the defense minister was off doing the foreign minister's job, Lieberman revealed the real reason for this state of affairs: It's not them, it's him. He, the settler, cannot conduct negotiations on the future of the settlements. That would be a conflict of interests - something to which the foreign minister is particularly sensitive.

And that is how it turns out that within our foreign minister's soul hides a hilltop youth who has been called up for reserve duty in order to evacuate settlements. Lieberman has not even disobeyed an order: He has simply requested not to participate in an evacuation that violates his conscience.

Violates? Not exactly. For years, Lieberman has been repeating that for the sake of an agreement, he would be willing to evacuate his own house in Nokdim. If so, there is no discernible conflict of interest in his involvement in the peace process.

What there is, however, is a change in his interests. In the past, Lieberman sought to soften his extremist image and wink at the center; now, he needs to do the opposite. His voters, especially the "Russians" who accounted for 10 of his party's seats, are divided into two groups: those who are motivated by communal solidarity with the leader of the "Russian street," almost regardless of his agenda, and the ideological voters, by whom he cannot afford to be seen as the foreign minister of a peace process based on concessions. And with both groups, the main thing Lieberman cannot afford is to be seen as weak and irrelevant.

His new incarnation as a "settler" is a very successful response to this whole mess, and also gives him a form of immunity in the event of possible legal problems. In the past, Lieberman would revert to being a "Russian" whenever such problems loomed on his doorstep. But it is hard for the foreign minister of Israel to also take on the role of the persecuted Russian.

"Settler" is thus not just an innovation; it is also a wise choice. Russian-speakers are not rushing to become settlers, but they do feel appreciation for the settlers as the "other," the anti-establishment, people who are paying a price for their ideology. This attitude also characterizes additional, broader sections of the public.

And it turns out that it works, at least in Russian - and apparently among the broader public as well, given that recent surveys show Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party maintaining its current strength. In the Russian-language media, his bizarre statement about a conflicts of interest was received with some sympathy. This media is not worried by the question of what the foreign minister is doing; rather, they are pleased by his policy of drawing closer to Russia. Who is Sarkozy anyway compared to Vladimir Putin, who pals around with Lieberman in Russian?

At this stage, Netanyahu is actually being hurt by the situation more than Lieberman is: Not only is he betraying his ("Russian") foreign minister, but he is also capitulating at a time when the proud hilltop youth remains unbowed. It couldn't be more perfect.