Washington D.C. — Pro-Israel activists who have long depicted Israel’s firebrand foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, as a marginal figure are now pondering how to explain his enhanced role to American politicians and others following Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to merge his party with Lieberman’s and effectively make Lieberman his chief deputy.
Lieberman, a longtime lightning rod, has epitomized the concerns some critics voice about Israel’s commitment to democratic norms. They cite his objection to any move toward compromise with the Palestinians, his call to curb Israeli Arabs’ citizenship rights and his support for restrictions on Israeli civil society organizations, among other things.
Now, the merger of his party, Yisrael Beiteinu, with Netanyahu’s ruling Likud faction will give Lieberman control of one-third of the seats in the new, merged party’s political list as it prepares for upcoming elections.
“Likud’s merger with Avigdor Lieberman’s party is bad news for Israel,” said Ori Nir, spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, a dovish group on the left end of the Jewish organizational spectrum. “It will further isolate Israel globally and erode its image as a democracy and a legitimate member of the family of nations.”
But others, closer to the center, don’t see Lieberman’s embrace by Netanyahu as a drag on Israel’s image or on its relations with the United States, since the platforms of the Israeli government coalition and the Likud party that leads it have not changed.
“Israel’s government supports a two-state solution, as does ours, and the merger of their two leading coalition partners, and the emergence of others parties, like [Yair] Lapid’s Yesh Atid, seems to make a secular, centrist coalition even more likely after their upcoming elections,” said Josh Block, CEO and president of The Israel Project, a group focused on promoting a pro-Israel approach in the media and in public opinion.
The complexity of the Israeli political system and Lieberman’s divergence from formerly known patterns of right-wing politics have made it difficult to decipher the possible impact of the merger of his party — Israel’s third largest — with Israel’s largest political party. The Moldovan-born Lieberman staunchly opposes abandoning exclusively Jewish settlements on the Israeli-occupied West Bank in order to achieve compromise with the Palestinians. But he willingly accepted the Netanyahu government’s guidelines, which declare the government’s support for a two-state solution to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians. On domestic issues, critics view him as the single biggest threat to equality and democracy in Israel. At the same time, he is staunchly anti-clerical and a consequent ally of liberals in their fight against perceived religious infringements on the rights of secular Israelis.
Lieberman first came to national attention when Netanyahu appointed him to be director general of the prime-minister’s office during the Likud leader’s first term as head of government, from 1996 to 1997. Lieberman then broke with the Likud, following what he saw as Netanyahu’s caving in to pressure from the United States in negotiations with the Palestinians. He later formed Yisrael Beiteinu, Israel Our Home, a right-wing party initially designed as a political voice for recently arrived immigrants from the Former Soviet Union.
Lieberman’s reputation as a politician on the extreme fringe came in part from his proposal to strip hundreds of thousands of Israeli Arab citizens of Israel of their citizenship as part of any future agreement with the Palestinians. Under his proposal, the geographic areas of Israel in which these Israeli citizens were concentrated would be transferred to a new Palestinian state. In exchange, the envisaged Palestinian state would agree to cede territory on which Israeli Jewish settlements sit in the currently occupied West Bank. Such a mass transfer of citizenship would violate international law without the consent of those affected. Lieberman initially made no provision for consulting Israeli Arabs about this but later changed his proposal to “transfer by consent.”