Israel's Controversial Candidate

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An Israeli man walks by a store in Jerusalem with an election poster for the leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu party Avigdor Lieberman

The candidates may change, but Israeli elections follow a golden rule. Nobody ever wins a majority in the 120-seat Knesset — which often makes for strange alliances, especially amongst the more hawkish, conservative Likud party, more dovish and liberal Labor party and a whole slew of other smaller factions. Judging from the polls, this will hold true in next Tuesday's elections, in which the front-running, self-described centrist Kadima party, headed by acting prime minister Ehud Olmert, is expected to garner less than 40 seats. Kadima will need partners, and increasingly, it looks like one of those may well be Avigdor Lieberman, a gravel-voiced settler, originally from Moldovia, whose views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are described by critics as "racist" and "fascist"

What has earned Lieberman such epithets — and intrigues many Israelis who believe that the Intifadahís suicide bombings have made co-existence with the Palestinians impossible — are Lieberman's plans to re-draw borders along ethnic lines. He proposes a new frontier between Israel and Palestine, forcing some 500,000 Arabs, who are now citizens of Israel, inside the Palestinian territories. Lieberman brushes aside the charges leveled against him. "Iím pragmatic, thatís all," retorts Lieberman, a wide-faced man with a cropped beard, whose party, Yisrael Beiteinu ("Israel, Our Home"), is expected to scoop up at least 11 seats, mainly from Israelís 900,000 Russian immigrants. "I donít believe in co-existence," he says. "We can be neighbors, but we canít live in one home."

In the aftermath of Ariel Sharon's massive stroke and sudden exit from politics, the rise of this gruff right-winger has become the most intriguing aspect of an otherwise lackluster electoral campaign. His plan is controversial not only for some Israelis who see it as akin to ethnic cleansing, but also, not surprisingly, among the Arabs. However much Israeli Arabs complain about being treated as second-class citizens, most of them say they prefer living in Israel to being submerged inside the West Bankís poverty and turmoil.

For now Olmert is acting standoffish, declaring that he would never invite Lieberman — or anyone else who isn't willing to withdraw from large parts of the West Bank — to join his future coalition. Olmert's plans for dealing with the Palestinians, which he inherited from Sharon, center on withdrawing many, though not all, Jewish settlements from the West Bank within four years, while maintaining military outposts near the Jordanian border and the West Bank separation barrier built in recent years to prevent suicide bombers from entering the country.

Lieberman says this is a giveaway of land that would only strengthen newly elected Hamas militants inside the Palestinian territories. Most political analysts dismiss this tough talk as electioneering, and say that if Olmert wins, as expected, he will probably coax Lieberman into the coalition. In that case, the eventual plan for disengaging with the Palestinians may end up being a compromise between the two proposals. Either way, it looks as though the next Israeli government will go ahead and draw up some kind of permanent boundaries — without consulting the Palestinians.