Lieberman's Reincarnation

This week Lieberman was reincarnated into Natan Sharansky when he traded the appointment of Daniel Friedmann as justice minister for his party receiving the immigrant absorption portfolio.

With unusual speed, the major parties have begun setting up on the "Russian street." Nobody admits it aloud, but among the reasons for this newfound activity is the assumption that if Avigdor Lieberman is forced, even temporarily, to leave politics because of the investigations against him, the 10 "Russian" Knesset seats he gained in the last election will be left behind; "orphaned," as it were.

The preparatory plans also contain the assumption that new elections will come sooner than expected, and the parties have to be better prepared than last time to recruit Russian-speaking voters, without whom elections in today's Israel cannot be won.

A difficult mission awaits them. Lieberman's appointment as foreign minister is naturally bad news for those revolted by his worldview. So it is, too, for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, whom Lieberman has affronted in the past, and to whom it will be difficult to explain the significance of the glass ceiling broken by the new foreign minister.

Still, the selection for foreign minister of the bearer of a heavy Russian accent, who began his political career 10 years ago in a small special-interest party, fulfills the dream of the immigration wave from the former Soviet Union, which began rolling in 20 years ago.

Lieberman is the message. The election campaign informed us that "Lieberman understands Arabic," but obviously he also understands Russian, and more than anything he proved he understands "Israeli."

But his success has led to another kind of problem. Russian speakers ask themselves just how much Lieberman remains a community leader, just "one of us." His great success in the election worries some of his constituents that he may use his community resources for his own personal gain. To translate that into political language, it would be a wonder if, in his path to the government, Lieberman entered the closed meetings of the moderate Israeli left via the moderate Russian right.

"On the assumption that in any electoral system Yvet is a different person, the question must be asked, 'Who is Lieberman of 2009?'" says an analyst and researcher of the Russian-speaking community. "It's hard to believe that such a hawk has the wings of a dove."

This feeling of uncertainty hides a certain danger to the "strong man" of the immigration wave. If he ceases to be a community leader, or at least a community representative, he is likely to lose his most secure electoral base, which in the election brought him 50 percent of the Russian-speaking vote. Experience shows that on a rainy day, and these are likely to come, Lieberman will return to being "Russian."

This week he was reincarnated into Natan Sharansky when he traded the appointment of Daniel Friedmann as justice minister for his party receiving the immigrant absorption portfolio, and revived dead issues like accommodation and professional training for new immigrants. As such he returned the necessary balance between pan-Israeli success and asserting his sectarian nature.

This complexity can also be seen in other parties, though they aren't really sure what to do with it. Even though most immigrants from the former Soviet Union have lived in Israel for between a third and a quarter of the state's existence, the parties remain as foreign tribes whose leaders have yet to be deciphered. A widespread impression is that Russian speakers instill fear even in Israel's stoutest-hearted leaders. The need to contend with what they call the "Lieberman phenomenon" requires them to come face to face, for the first time, with the 13th tribe.