Who Is Avigdor Lieberman, the Right-wing Leader Standing Between Netanyahu and a 5th Term?

12 shocking headlines from one of the most bombastic careers in Israeli politics

Avigdor Lieberman.
Amos Biderman

Half a year ago one man stood alone and unchallenged on the summit of Israeli politics - the veteran right-wing populist Benjamin Netanyahu, known as "King Bibi" to his loyal followers.

But on Tuesday Netanyahu failed, for the second time since April, to secure a clear victory in parliamentary elections. And now all eyes are turning to a former Netanyahu aide who stood up to his former boss five months ago, and may now decide whether the Netanyahu era continues, or comes to an end.

The potential new kingmaker is Avigdor Lieberman, a far-right immigrant from Moldova who lives in an Israeli settlement in the West Bank and who served as an aide to Netanyahu during the 1990s.

Lieberman, 61, has none of Netanyahu's polish and international prestige, but took a huge gamble by refusing to join a Netanyahu coalition government on a point of principle in an election last April.

Lieberman, a former defence minister under Netanyahu, made his stand on the long-standing divide within Israel between its secular and ultra-religious communities.

He refused to serve alongside ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties who have long been allies in Netanyahu-led ruling coalitions, and who wield influence over everyday life in Israel, including the administration of marriage and divorce.

Secular warrior riddled with scandals

But, Lieberman, who has served as Minister of National Infrastructure, Minister of Transportation, Minister of Strategic Affairs, Deputy Prime Minister, Foreign Affairs Minister, and Minister of Defense, since entering the Knesset in 1999, has made many, many headlines in the last twenty years.

From his anti-Arab comments, to a conviction for assaulting a young boy, a graft trial and even telling the president of Egypt “to go to hell,” here are just a few of Lieberman’s scandals:

2001: Lieberman Admits to Assaulting Boy

The state and National Infrastructure Minister Avigdor Lieberman have reached a plea bargain on Lieberman's indictment for assaulting a minor.

Under the deal, presented by both sides to the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court yesterday, Lieberman admitted to assaulting a 12-year-old boy from the settlement of Tekoa and bruising and threatening another boy who allegedly hit Lieberman's son.

2003: Lieberman Blasted for Suggesting Drowning Palestinian Prisoners

A storm erupted in the Knesset plenum, following Transport Minister Avigdor Lieberman's reported proposal to provide buses to take the Palestinian prisoners that Israel releases to a place "whence they will not return"

2004: Lieberman Presents to Russia Plan to Expel 'Disloyal' Arabs

Transportation Minister Avigdor Lieberman has presented Russian officials with his plan to separate Jews from Arabs, which involves exiling Israeli Arabs deemed disloyal to the state.

Lieberman, chairman of the rightist National Union party and an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, met with Russian President Vladimir Putin's personal representative in the Quartet for Mideast peace, Alexander Galkin, and Russian ambassador to Israel Gennady Tarasov in Israel at Russia's request.

The plan is based on the idea of separating the populations and territories of Jews and Arabs, including Israeli Arabs. 

2006: Lieberman says Arab MK 'Collaborators' Should Be Executed

Yisrael Beiteinu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman yesterday lashed out at Israeli Arab political parties and said he hoped Arab Knesset members would be executed.

During a Knesset plenum debate, Lieberman said Arab MKs who meet with Hamas leaders "are cooperating with the enemy" and must stand trial.

2009: New Foreign Minister Sparked Outrage in Egypt Last Year When He said Mubarak Could 'Go to hell'

His remarks were made in reference to Mubarak's refusal to make an official state visit to Israel. The Egyptian leader's sole trip to his country's neighbor to the east was for the 1995 funeral of slain prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.

2013: At the Lieberman Trial, an 'Old Friend' Tells a Thrilling Spy Tale

In testifying 'against' former FM Avigdor Lieberman, ex-ambassador to Belarus Ze’ev Ben Aryeh describes a spy tale in which nothing is really what it seems

2014: Lieberman's 'Peace Plan': Pay Israeli Arabs to Move to Palestinian State

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on Friday published an updated platform for his party, Yisrael Beiteinu, which includes a "peace plan" that calls on the government to encourage the transfer of Israeli Arabs to a Palestinian state by offering them "economic incentives."

The platform, which may be another sign that Knesset elections are forthcoming, was published on the Yisrael Beiteinu website and reiterates declarations the foreign minister has made over the past year. The diplomatic portion of the platform, or its "peace plan," does not include clear positions on issues such as Israel's borders, the status of Jerusalem or settlement construction and the future of existing Israeli settlements.

2015: Former Lieberman, Netanyahu Aide Who Mysteriously Disappeared Suspected of Money Laundering

Michael Palkov, a former media consultant who is suspected of laundering funds through a website he owned, disappeared six months ago.

On August 25, the Russian news website REGNUM – a relatively unknown agency that is not particularly influential in the Russian media – reported that two weeks earlier, the Ukranian army had found Palkov's passport along with a charred corpse.

2015: Lieberman says Disloyal Israeli Arabs Should Be Beheaded

Israeli Arabs who are disloyal to the State of Israel should have their heads chopped off, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said at an elections conference at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya this week.

"Whoever's with us should get everything – up to half the kingdom," Lieberman said Sunday, in a reference to King Ahaseurus' pledge to Queen Esther as described in the Book of Esther, which tells the story of the Purim holiday celebrated last week.

2016: Lieberman Says He Would Give Hamas Leader Ismail Haniyeh 48 Hours to Return the Bodies of Dead Israeli Soldiers or be Assassinated

Now that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has expanded his governing coalition by bringing in Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, the Hamas leader in Gaza’s days are ostensibly numbered.

Dr. Yuval Dror, dean of the communications track at the College of Management (and occasional Haaretz contributor), has thus set up the website isismailhaniyehdeadyet.com to remind Lieberman of his pledge.

2017: Following Riots, Israeli Defense Minister Calls for Boycott of Arab Citizens: 'They Don't Belong Here'

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman on Sunday said that Israeli Arab residents of the Wadi Ara region “do not belong to the State of Israel" and should be boycotted.

Lieberman was commenting on the hundreds who rioted along Route 65 in northern Israel on Saturday in protest over U.S. President Donald Trump's declaration last week that the United States recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

2018: Two Years on the Job, Israel's Defense Minister Lacks Knowledge, Training and Influence

Some say that Lieberman, a veteran politician, is aware that one knows how war starts, but not how it ends. Others say that his lack of military and security experience is so great, he doesn’t have a choice but to agree with the military’s moderate line. However, he still wishes to leave a mark.

2019: Lieberman snatches away Netanyahu’s election victory 

Avigdor Lieberman has had it at last. Thirty-one years since he, as a new Likud member, volunteered to work for Deputy Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as his unofficial political aide, the once fanatically loyal “Evet” is trying to call time on his old boss’ career.

His reasons for doing so are complex. Lieberman, who previously escaped money-laundering and fraud charges by the skin of his teeth, is no defender of the rule of law or liberal democratic values. For him, it has always been about power

Reuters contributed to this article