Avigdor Lieberman: ‘Dobermann’ of the Israeli right
Israel’s outspoken former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, who resigned last month after being charged with corruption offences, is a firebrand hardliner with a burning ambition to lead the right.
Known for his anti-Arab stance, he has been dogged by corruption allegations for years but denies the charges against him, saying he is eager to vindicate himself in court.
Despite leaving his ministerial post, he remains head of the hardline secular nationalist Yisrael Beitenu, which is running on a joint list with the right-wing Likud of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in elections due on Tuesday.
The alliance is expected to lead the next coalition government.
Born in the then Soviet republic of Moldova, Lieberman, 54, immigrated to Israel in 1978 at the age of 20 and for a time worked as a bouncer in a nightclub in Beersheva.
He won a degree in social sciences from Jerusalem’s prestigious Hebrew University and served in the army, reaching the rank of corporal, before beginning to climb the political ladder of the national right.
For years he was a loyal member of the long-dominant Likud, rising through the ranks to become Netanyahu’s chief-of-staff during his first term from 1996-1999.
In 1999, Lieberman created his own party, Yisrael Beitenu (Israel is Our Home), aimed at capturing the votes of the swelling Soviet immigrant community. The party came third in 2009 elections.
A resident of the West Bank settlement of Nokdim, he pleaded guilty in 2001 to assaulting a Palestinian child who had hit his son.
He was fined and ordered to pay compensation to the 12-year-old Palestinian.
His critics call him a “racist”, or even a “Dobermann” for the right, but to his supporters he is a refreshing tough talker on security.
The media has nicknamed him “Rasputin” and “KGB”, alluding to his authoritarian behaviour and his origins, highlighted by his slow speech and heavy accent.
Lieberman’s appointment in March 2009 as foreign minister, after his party won 15 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, raised concerns in the international community about the Israeli government’s commitment to peace with its Arab neighbours.
Last month, shortly before he resigned, Lieberman mounted an acerbic verbal attack on Europe, saying its treatment of the Jewish state was comparable to its policies during the Holocaust.
The stocky politician has called for Gaza to be treated “like Chechnya”, for Israel to deal with its Hamas rulers “just like the United States did with the Japanese in World War II” and for the execution of Arab-Israeli MPs who have had any dealings with the Islamist movement.
He refers to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas as a “diplomatic terrorist” and says that there can be no peace as long as his Western-backed Palestinian Authority is in power.
Critics seize on his more outspoken comments to say he is a dangerous radical and a racist who poses a threat to Israel’s Arab citizens and others.
He has regularly engaged in slanging matches with Arab-Israeli parliamentarians, calling them “clowns” and “terrorists”.
But he also became the butt of Israeli jokes in 2011, when he conducted a live radio interview from the toilet, punctuating the questions with a flush.
Lieberman backs settlement activity and wants to keep the major settlement blocs in return for transferring areas where many Arab Israelis live to Palestinian control.
The burly father-of-three also served as national infrastructure minister (2001-2002), transport minister (2003-2004) and strategic affairs minister (2007-2008).