Avigdor Lieberman 248.88.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Israel Beitenu leader Avigdor Lieberman used a single word to summarize his response to the assertion that the "occupation" is to blame for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"Bullshit," he said.
It was the only occasion in our hour-long interview - conducted entirely in English - that the otherwise formal politician used such language.
Then he elaborated. "The real reason for the long-standing conflict is the friction that naturally exists between two populations," he said. "Anywhere in the world where there are two populations, two religions and two languages [sharing the same territory], there is conflict."
And the only way to solve it, he asserted, is to separate the competing groups. His main concern, he stressed, is the Israeli-Arabs - an issue even more "worrisome" than the Palestinians of the territories. "We must put this issue on the table," he said.
As someone who immigrated from Moldova in 1978 for Zionist reasons, Lieberman, 46, said his primary mission was to ensure that Israel maintains it Jewish identity. Having a large Muslim-Arab population within the state's borders, he said, imperils this identity.
Lieberman stated unabashedly that he does not believe most Israeli Arabs should reside in Israel; nor does he think they consider themselves a part of the country. "Why should we have citizens whose only connection to the state is their monthly national insurance claim?" he asked.
Such candor extends to Lieberman's electoral platform as well. In a campaign characterized by ambiguity where Israel's future borders are concerned - with major players Kadima and the Likud dancing around the issue - Lieberman couldn't be more specific about his party's territorial plan. It's one he has been peddling for more than a year, and one which is posted on the Israel Beitenu Web site for any potential voter to see.
The plan involves redrawing the state's borders according to existing Jewish and Arab population areas. This, he said, would allow Israel to retain settlement blocs in the West Bank on the one hand, and relinquish heavily Arab-populated areas in what is today sovereign Israel (such as the Galilee "triangle," its Wadi Ara valley and its cities that include Umm el-Fahm, Taiba and Baka al-Gharbiyeh) on the other. It is this radical innovation, Lieberman said, that makes him confident his party will be able to garner votes from a wide spectrum of the political map.
The high hopes might sound exaggerated, given Israel Beitenu's modest electoral record since its establishment in 1999. In its first term, it received four mandates; in its last, it received three of the National Union's seven, when it ran with that party on a joint ticket. Polls have predicted only a slightly better future for the small party in the upcoming elections - five to nine mandates - something Lieberman attributes to ignorance on the part of many voters who still believe Israel Beitenu is paired with the NU.
Yet his optimism is more understandable this time around, since it can be argued that his platform contains a little something for everyone. Right-wingers will generally appreciate his intention to retain settlements. They will also believe he means it, since not only did he remain opposed to disengagement even when it cost him his ministerial seat, he himself lives in a settlement - Nokdim - with his wife and three children.
Some left-wingers may endorse his readiness to relinquish swaths of territory heavily populated with Arabs.
Other potential voters, meanwhile, may be drawn by his belief that civil marriage would not detract from the Jewish identity of the state.
And then, of course, there are the Russians, who, Lieberman estimates, make up about 70 percent of his constituents.
Indeed, the Slavic presence is strongly felt in Lieberman's Jerusalem office. Russian-language signs and books are alongside those in Hebrew. And the party chairman speaks with his staff interchangeably in both languages.
His is not the first party to court and cater to Israelis from the Former Soviet Union. Israel B'Aliya, headed by former refusenik Natan Sharansky, tried with limited success - between the 1996 and 2003 elections - to bring the Russians and the Right together as a cohesive entity. Even at its height, Sharansky's party managed to gain only seven mandates; in 2003, after garnering a mere two Knesset seats, it ended up merging with the Likud.
Lieberman said he doesn't think his party will suffer the same fate. In fact, he expects it to become the third largest party, the "dark horse" of the 2006 elections. He professes such certainty that he is refusing to form pre-election alliances with any other party.
"We will run alone," he insisted.
LIEBERMAN - WHO served as director-general of the Likud Party and of the Prime Minister's Office under Binyamin Netanyahu - said he had "mixed emotions but no regrets" as he watched his former boss retake the Likud's helm this month.
"I'm happy for him," he said, though acknowledging that Bibi's victory would make his own battle harder.
"It's more difficult to run against Bibi than against [Foreign Minister] Silvan Shalom," he said, "both on a personal level, and because we are competing for the same right-wing and Russian voters."
Musing on how he and Netanyahu had worked together within the Likud - prior to his ideological rift with a party he claimed had "gone astray" - Lieberman sighed. "Life is such a strange thing," he said. "Here I am, alone."
But Netanyahu's victory aside, it is Israel Beitenu, insisted Lieberman - the words of the Betar anthem hanging on the wall behind him - that is the "real Likud," the "true follower of Zeev Jabotinsky." Indeed, from the outset, he stressed, he had defined his party as "revisionist."
"Most of the Likud - like Ariel Sharon - is ready to give up everything and receive nothing," he said. "This is a mistake. All gestures of goodwill are taken as Israel's weakness and Arab victory."
And such gestures, he insisted, do not get to the "heart of the matter," which is the conflict between two peoples.
"It is more complicated in Israel than it is in countries like Ireland, where the people are divided by religion," he went on. "Here, Jews and Arabs speak different languages, adhere to different religions and think of themselves as two separate nations."
The solution, he said, is for as many Muslim Arabs as possible to be under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority - although not those in Jerusalem, he said, which should remain a united city under Israeli sovereignty, in spite of its large Arab population.
How does he envision total separation in a country that has many mixed areas?
"It is impossible to totally rid Israel of its Muslim-Arab population," he said. And so, in cities such as Lod, Acre and Haifa, where many Arabs reside, Israeli citizenship should be granted only to those Arabs who sign a loyalty oath.
"Any Arab who agrees to acknowledge that Israel is a Jewish-Zionist state and that he is willing to serve either in the military or perform national service, can become a citizen," he said. "Others may hold permanent resident status, which means they would not be eligible to vote or granted other rights reserved for full citizens."
He continued: "Sharon is creating a homogeneous Palestinian state void of Jews [in the territories]. If they have a right to their own national Arab state, we have a right to a Jewish one that demands loyalty of its citizens."
Lieberman does not restrict his "loyalty" requirement to Arabs, however. Anyone wanting citizenship, he said, would be required to sign a loyalty oath and to perform either military or national service.
IF HIS "revisionist," Jewish platform seems at odds with his support of civil marriage - an issue central to the platform of Shinui, which champions the separation of religion and state - Lieberman, secular with an observant wife, sees no contradiction.
"The state already accepts civil marriages performed outside of Israel," he noted, "so why not recognize such marriages when they are performed here?"
Still, he hurried to dissociate himself from Shinui which, he said, "wants to divorce Judaism from the state," and invoked Theodor Herzl: The Jewish people, he said, cannot survive without a state that places its Jewish nature even above its democratic nature.
"If Israel loses its identity as a Jewish state, most Jews in the world would not retain their identity," he said, "which is why our first priority is aliya - not just as a way of maintaining a Jewish majority in the country, but also because living in Israel is the best antidote to assimilation."
As such, he added, absorption of immigrants is equally crucial. "And it's not enough to get them here," he said, pointing to the fact that the number of Russians leaving Israel is currently higher than the number arriving. "Conditions must be conducive for them to remain."
Asked to elaborate as to what he means by a Jewish state, Lieberman looked at his watch. "That would take more time than we have," he replied.