How Lieberman Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

To some, he's Israel's savior and to others, its greatest threat. Either way, Avigdor Lieberman's ascension from club bouncer to potential prime minister charts an impressive rise to power.

Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter

The word "gever" in Hebrew simply means "man." But double that up and you get a macho man. The term "gever-gever" first popped up in the satirical sketch comedy show "Eretz Nehederet," when one of the show's comedians did a mean impersonation of then-Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz. The term has since become synonymous with Israeli tough guys, most often former army generals and decorated fighters – John Wayne types with a bit of Chuck Norris. Given these origins, you'd hardly think a former luggage carrier and bouncer with a year and a half military service as a warehouse guard would qualify.

Enter Avigdor Lieberman, the accidental gever-gever.

In a hundred years, historians looking back on this period in Israeli politics might wonder how an immigrant from the former Soviet Union without any military credentials managed to become the messiah of Israeli nationalists. They'll scratch their heads over how an aggressive right-wing activist with a heavy Russian accent, a penchant for violence and a cold, calculating demeanor managed to navigate the stormy seas of Israeli politics like few before him. They'll go mad trying to understand how, within ten years, this political meteor came to be a mere heartbeat away from the Prime Minister's Office.

There's no doubt that Lieberman is an interesting guy. To his many enemies on the left, the current foreign minister and leader of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party is the epitome of fascism and extreme nationalism, a symbol of everything wrong with Israel today. To his many fans and admirers on the right, he's a pragmatic, yet tough, leader with zero tolerance for shenanigans and a deep commitment to defend Israel at all costs, against any enemy, outside or within.

He was born Evet Lieberman in Kishinev, Moldova, then a part of the Soviet Union. In Russia, he applied to study law at the University of Kiev but was rejected, possibly for being Jewish. In 1978 he and his family immigrated to Israel where he changed his name to Avigdor. But he's still called "Evet" occasionally – fondly by friends and sarcastically by detractors.

After his brief military service, he enrolled in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, studying political science and international relations. He was also active in right-wing student organizations closely associated with Likud at a time when tensions between right-wing and Arab students often escalated into violence. Some of his fellow right-wing students, among them veteran Likud MK Tzachi Hanegbi, went on to become prominent figures in Israeli politics.

At that time Lieberman worked a slew of menial jobs, from bouncer at a student club to dishwasher to baggage handler at the airport.

A political partnership

Lieberman first met Benjamin Netanyahu, then living in the United States, when the latter visited Israel in 1987. The two, destined to become close political allies and confidants, hit it off right away. A year later Netanyahu was back in Israel and eager to get into politics, enlisting the help of Lieberman to head his operation. Netanyahu soon became head of Likud, and Lieberman was promoted to director general of the party. In 1996, after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the election of Netanyahu as prime minister, Lieberman became chief of staff. He was known as a tough, reliable confidant of Netanyahu's, ambitious but fiercely loyal, independent but lacking a political identity of his own. Lieberman cut his teeth in the first year of Netanyahu's first term, but quit in 1997 to go into business and launch his own political operations.

Shrewdly recognizing the massive potential of the Russian vote – strengthened in the early 1990s with a million new immigrants from the former Soviet Union – he formed Yisrael Beiteinu ("Israel Our Home"), a Russian party different from any other Russian party before it. Israeli-Russian politicians, especially Natan Sharansky, had always been right-wing, but generally dealt with niche issues in the Russian community. Lieberman went a different route that took Russians out of the Russian ghetto and made them an integral part of Israeli politics.

In 1999, Yisrael Beiteinu won only four seats but Lieberman made a name for himself by wisely using the waves of nationalist rage at the beginning of the Second Intifada to become more than just a Russian MK. He was brash, outspoken and shockingly right-wing with a tendency to get into scandals and rile the press. He was known as a bully, in part due to his large frame. But he also managed to tap into a burgeoning disillusionment in the Israeli public toward the peace process.

By the next elections he had already formed an alliance with other right-wing parties, running together as bloc called the HaIhud HaLeumi (National Union(, winning seven seats in the Knesset. After the elections Lieberman became minister of transportation, his first ministerial office. In 2004 he was fired by then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for refusing to support Sharon's unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip. That's when he started publicly advocating the idea of land swaps as a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a more subtle version of the ideas he advocated in previous years. Lieberman presented his new, pragmatic self in his 2004 book, "My Truth." By the next elections, now running on his own as head of Yisrael Beiteinu, he won 11 seats thanks to wide support from Soviet immigrants but also from non-Russian voters.

He was now a major political force, a kingmaker, thanks to a brilliant campaign promising to import Putinian toughness and Russian no-nonsense politics to Israel. In 2006 he joined the government of Ehud Olmert as minister of strategic affairs, eventually quitting after Olmert engaged in peace talks with the Palestinian Authority. In the 2009 elections, he won 15 seats with the slogan "no loyalty = no citizenship," an attack on leftists and Arab citizens.

After the elections he found himself head of the third biggest party in the Knesset. He eventually became foreign minister and deputy prime minister under Netanyahu, completing his ascension to the highest echelon of Israeli politics and reuniting once again with his mentor.

His meteoric rise shocked and frightened many Israelis: Here was a blunt, outspoken nationalist leader, charismatic and unbelievably popular thanks to a wave of anti-Arab hatred, who once suggested drowning Palestinian prisoners in the Dead Sea, bombing Egypt, and executing Arab lawmakers. And now here he was, second only to the prime minister, representing Israel around the world.

If the foreign minister is the face we show to the world, Lieberman's appointment made many Israelis afraid to look in the mirror. The foreign minister is supposed to be prudent, diplomatic and suave, everything Lieberman is not. In his time at the Foreign Ministry, he managed to completely change the nature of Israeli diplomacy. Think back to 2010 when the Turkish ambassador, summoned to appear before Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon after an anti-Israeli show aired on Turkish television, was publicly humiliated and forced to sit in a chair below Ayalon. Now you have a sense of how things have changed. In Europe and elsewhere, officials have refused to meet with him, isolating Israel even more.

Prime minister-in-waiting

Scandals and controversies have always chased Lieberman, a resident of the small West Bank settlement Nokdim, and he has always managed to shrug them off. In 2001 he was convicted of assault after attacking a 12-year-old boy who hit his son in 1999. Since then, Lieberman has repeatedly been accused of corruption – allegedly receiving millions of shekels from local and foreign businessmen while in office. He has been investigated for allegedly receiving bribes from Austrian businessman Martin Schlaff and for allegedly funneling illegal payments through his young daughter. In December 2012, on the eve of the election, the Attorney General decided to indict him, in line with a similar recommendation made by the police after years of investigation - possibly the longest police inquiry, involving a high-ranking official, in history. Lieberman denies all wrongdoing and claims the investigations are just political persecution.

None of these scandals, fears, or media controversies could stop his rise. In fact, they bolstered his profile and put him in the center of the public discourse. In 2006, actor Assi Cohen imitated Lieberman on "Eretz Nehederet," entering the stage to chants of "Hi Lieberman" (now try saying that phrase out loud).

To his enemies and detractors, Lieberman runs an anti-democratic puppet-party where he calls all the shots. To his admirers, he's the leader Israel has always needed, one that will never surrender and never back down. If anyone ever believed that attack is the best form of defense, it's Lieberman, so it's no surprise that he's one of the chief proponents of attacking Iran.

Shortly before the AG announced his decision to indict him, Lieberman opted for damage control by way of the announcement that he and Netanyahu would join hands and run together in the upcoming elections. If his corruption case amounts to nothing, as he is convinced it will, the coup does more than just confirm Lieberman's impressive ascent: it has the potential to catapult him straight into the Prime Minister's Office, if not under a rotation agreement with Netanyahu then perhaps after the next elections.

Had it not been for the onerous shadow cast on Lieberman's political future, he and Netanyahu might have finished what they started back in 1987. After Netanyahu's term ends, Lieberman could conceivably be next in line. Then Israel will have a truly uncompromising leader, willing to strike any foe – external or otherwise – and deliver death to any who threaten its existence. Gever-gever, no?

Avigdor Lieberman.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum



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