The reversal of fortune was swift. The Magistrate Court’s unanimous acquittal (on Nov. 5) of Avigdor Lieberman on charges of fraud and breach of trust instantaneously transformed Israel’s most self-made politician from disempowered suspect to political magnet, compass, and pivot.
Charged with unlawfully obtaining information on a previous police investigation as well as granting an ambassadorship to a confidante in return for that leak, Lieberman proceeded from the courtroom to the Western Wall to thank God. He then went to see Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, to collect a deposit he had left with his boss, ally and rival: the Foreign Ministry.
By the next week, following a ten-month absence due to his indictment, the Soviet-born West Bank settler was back in the Foreign Minister’s office in what amounts to a personal rebirth that carries broader diplomatic, social and political repercussions.
The unsuccessful indictment, now history, followed an earlier decision by Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein to drop much more serious charges of money laundering against Lieberman for lack of sufficient evidence. Now, with the last of his 17-years’ of legal entanglements over, Lieberman is expected to focus on cultivating his ambition to be Israel’s next prime minister – whether after Netanyahu chooses to retire, or potentially even before then.
Born in Kishinev, Moldova, Lieberman arrived in Israel at age 20, served in the IDF Artillery Corps and earned a BA in International Relations from the Hebrew University while working as a bouncer in the campus discotheque.
His political career began humbly as a regional secretary in a nationalist workers’ union, but picked up when the post-Soviet immigration began pouring into Israel in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Raised speaking Yiddish and Russian by parents who had met as inmates in a Siberian gulag, Lieberman was well-equipped to serve as a bridge between Israel’s old establishment and this new electoral constituency – one that was frequently hawkish but also highly secular.
Likud’s years in opposition during Yitzhak Rabin’s premiership played into Lieberman’s hands, as he helped Netanyahu win the Likud leadership. His appointment in 1996 as Director-General of the Prime Minister’s Office was the first of two high points in a roller-coaster relationship that at one point descended into an abyss – and is now entering a tunnel of uncertainty.
The rift came in 1997, when Lieberman resigned as Netanyahu’s chief aide after police began an investigation into his political dealings. Offended by Netanyahu’s distance from him in those days, Lieberman launched his own party, Yisrael Beitenu (“Israel is Our Home”) and campaigned energetically among the Russian-speaking electorate.
The initial result of this was a handsome but still marginal four Knesset seats, but this later swelled to 11 and then, in 2009, became 15 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. Though up to his neck at the time in police investigations, Lieberman became a force to contend with and Netanyahu grudgingly made his estranged protégé Foreign Minister.
The two’s renewed collaboration actually worked out better than many expected, so much so that before last January’s election they welded their parties into a joint ticket which polls indicated would win at least 40 seats. Instead, they won 31, of whom 11 are Lieberman’s appointees and loyalists.
This is where things stood as the exonerated Lieberman stepped up to the Knesset’s podium to be sworn in as Netanyahu’s old-new foreign minister on Nov. 11.
Diplomatically, Lieberman is more flexible than his often cartoonish international image suggests.
Though a pessimist who thinks peace with the Palestinians is right now impossible, and a hardliner who has said he does not trust Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, there is also a less rigid Lieberman. In late 2006, for instance, he surprised the political system when he saved Ehud Olmert’s centrist government from falling by joining it just when it was in the doldrums, following the previous summer’s inconclusive fighting in Lebanon.
Similarly, though he lives in a settlement in the Judean Desert southeast of Bethlehem, Lieberman does not believe soil is sacred and is prepared to trade land for peace provided the borders are redrawn so that the Palestinian state includes a large part of Israel’s Arab citizens.
In the spirit of this unpredictability, upon returning to the Foreign Ministry Lieberman said his first priority will be to restore calm to Jerusalem’s relations with Washington. Praising the veteran alliance between the Jewish state and America, Lieberman was referring to the tensions that had grown between Netanyahu and Secretary of State John Kerry in the wake of the American-led negotiations with Iran.
Netanyahu had dubbed the reported agreement brewing whereby some of the West’s sanctions would be eased while Iran suspends its nuclear program for six months “a very bad deal.” Netanyahu’s harsh words elicited a sharp response from an insulted Kerry who said America would not sign a bad deal, and that the deal could not be judged before it had actually been signed.
Lieberman, then, sought to encourage voices to be lowered in this war of words, which suggests he will generally be looking to prevent rather than provoke diplomatic crises of the sort that flared between Israel and Turkey during his previous term as foreign minister. At the same time, he fully shares Netanyahu’s distrust of the Iranians and scepticism toward the value of any deal struck with the Ayatollahs’ regime.
A bigger question is how Lieberman will impact the talks with the Palestinians.
Back in 2007, Lieberman left Olmert’s coalition because the latter, together with then-foreign minister Tzipi Livni, entered into talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas over the so-called core issues, namely borders, refugees and Jerusalem.
Now it is Netanyahu who is conducting talks over these very same issues, opposite the same Mahmoud Abbas, via the same Tzipi Livni, now the Justice Minister. Lieberman’s reaction to all this remains to be seen, but two facts are already clear: despite his rhetoric, he can back territorial concessions; and his backing for a deal would be priceless in terms of selling it to the public, because of his unique social position.
Now 55, Lieberman’s Hebrew is perfect but his accent remains unmistakeably Russian, as does much of his power base.
During two decades of public visibility, Lieberman emerged as an emblem of the Russian immigration. Unlike many native politicians, his path to power stemmed from no lineage, apparatus, or patron, and unlike celebrity immigrants like Natan Sharansky, Lieberman did not earn his fame beyond the Iron Curtain. Rather, like most of the Russian immigration, Lieberman started from below, penniless and unconnected, and therefore owes his political rise to no one but himself.
Then again, as he has climbed the political ladder, Lieberman has linked up with Russian Jewry’s new moneyed elite back in Moscow. These ties, besides animating the legal suspicions that have haunted him, also changed his image from harmless newcomer to intercontinental power peddler.
At the same time, Lieberman’s Russian connections have been valuable diplomatically.
His conversations in fluent Russian with Vladimir Putin have helped cultivate a relatively warm relationship between Moscow and Jerusalem, which is underpinned by oil purchases that now dominate Israel’s energy imports.
Between them, Netanyahu’s familiarity with American culture and Lieberman’s Russian background make a unique diplomatic duo that no other country has. Then again, Lieberman’s political needs now require that he downplay the Russian part of his political identity.
Lieberman’s new image of power and connections reflects the overall economic success of the “Russian” Israelis – which in turn means they no longer need sectarian politics. Indeed, the voting patterns for the former immigrants increasingly resemble veterans Israelis’. At the same time, Lieberman’s electoral support base increasingly includes veteran Israelis. That is why he teamed up with Netanyahu in the last election.
Set against this backdrop, Lieberman faces two strategic choices: consolidate as Netanyahu’s “Number Two”, or split the Likud and challenge Netanyahu from outside it. Whatever his choice, Lieberman will have to re-brand himself politically – an aim he had already begun to promote before his acquittal.
Lieberman’s domestic political program has been dominated by confrontation with the religious parties and the promotion of political reform.
With many of his voters not fully recognised as Jewish under traditional religious law and therefore experiencing difficulties getting married through the official Rabbinate, Lieberman fought to ease conversion procedures and also introduce various forms of civil marriage. In addition, he joined efforts to expand conscription for ultra-Orthodox men.
At the same time, Lieberman advocated political reforms that would transform Israel from a parliamentary to a presidential democracy, with a strong chief executive. This quest is no less disagreeable to the religious parties than Lieberman’s religious positions, because a further empowered prime minister would have less need to make concessions to small parties like theirs. Add to this Lieberman’s deep faith in capitalism, and it becomes clearer why both the ultra-Orthodox and Labor have seen him over the years as something akin to the anti-Christ.
This year, however, Lieberman somewhat dented this image by joining together with the ultra-Orthodox Shas party to field a candidate for Jerusalem’s mayoralty.
That candidate lost, albeit narrowly, and Lieberman left everyone guessing as to what was behind his attempted political gambit. Though there was in it a personal element – Lieberman has had a falling out with re-elected Mayor Nir Barkat – many believe there was also long-term strategy on the part of the aspiring prime minister. Indeed, in what may be a sign of things to come, Netanyahu did not endorse Lieberman’s candidate, unlike the rest of Likud’s ministers.
Looking two blocks north from his office to the Foreign Ministry, Netanyahu now sees a rival full of energy, ambition and confidence. Looking south from his office, Lieberman sees his intermittent boss of 21 years, and like a spouse considering divorce, counts the costs and benefits of their continued marriage of convenience.
For now, Lieberman’s faction, though elected as part of Netanyahu’s ticket, regularly holds separate meetings in the Knesset. Talk of a formal separation is widespread, but action may take longer than some predict. During his long years as a frustrated outsider and perennial criminal suspect, Lieberman has learned many lessons but one dominates the rest: patience pays.