Behind the Lines: Don't call him 'Yvette'

Lieberman's deepest frustration seems to be public perceptions that he is a 'Russian politician.'

By
October 26, 2006 21:29
Avigdor Lieberman Israel Beiteinu 298.88

Avigdor Lieberman 248.88. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])

 
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Avigdor Lieberman was interviewed this week on the Knesset Channel. When asked the standard question, "Do you want to be prime minister?" - after answering evasively, as do all ambitious politicians to this question - Lieberman latched on to a remark made by the interviewer, and repeated the following sentence four times: "I don't need legitimization." Me thinks he doth protest too much. Despite his substantial political career and recent successes, he still craves acceptance from the public, the media and - above all - from that amorphous group for whom he once harbored a visceral hatred: the Elite. Lieberman is a complex, intelligent and highly motivated person. But his inner codes are as different from those of standard Israeli politicians as they undecipherable to many of them. Is he a real ideologue, solely interested in attaining his radical goals for Israel's future - or is the pursuit of power an aim in itself? Will his principles prove to be elastic - as his choice of coalition bedfellows this week appeared to be? And what to make of this deep need for acceptance? Is it just another "means to an end" of reaching the highest office? Or is it similar to that of so many immigrants - even those, like Lieberman, soon completing a third decade in Israel - wishing not to be seen as foreigners? Whatever the answer, Lieberman's deepest frustration seems to be that he is still considered by much of the public - and portrayed by much of the media (perhaps maliciously) - as a "Russian politician." This may be of a simple case of an inferiority complex. But there are moments when his sense would seem justified - for example, last Friday, when former Meretz chairman and current Ha'aretz columnist Yossi Sarid lumped Lieberman together with Russian oligarch Arkady Gaidamak, and described him as having a "Putinist-Rasputinist charisma." A few days after Binyamin Netanyahu's shock victory in the 1996 elections, a request/order was issued to all the news organizations that henceforth, the new prime minister was no longer to be referred to as "Bibi," nor was Avigdor Lieberman - slated to become director-general of the Prime Minister's Office - to be called "Yvette." Netanyahu's motive here was clear: The ballot box had earned him the right to a higher degree of respect. The directive about Lieberman came as more of a surprise to journalists, however, because most of them hadn't even been aware that he had a Hebrew name. At the time, he was simply "Bibi's enforcer," one of his more shadowy operators within the Likud - who had begun working with Netanyahu in 1988, when the former ambassador to the UN made his move into politics. After Netanyahu won the Likud primaries in 1993, he appointed Lieberman to run the party organization. This was at a time when ruthless cutbacks were needed to put its apparatus back on its feet. Lieberman went about his work without sentimentality. By the time of the elections, he had earned a reputation both for organizational skills and for keen political instincts, which he had used to identify Netanyahu's supporters and potential rivals within the party. The origins of the Lieberman image, then, do not stem from a "hostile media," but rather with those members of Likud who called him "KGB" for his methods, and portrayed him as a foreigner usurping Menachem Begin's party in the name of Netanyahu. From the point of view of the media - for which Netanyahu had become the anti-Christ following the Rabin assassination - Lieberman, initially, was seen as a sinister extension of his boss. In the general war of the press against Netanyahu, he was a convenient target, made even more so by his intimidating appearance and heavy accent. He was regularly lampooned on the satirical TV show, "Hartzufim" (the Israeli version of Spitting Image) as the bloodthirsty "Vladimir." When he was ringleader of the "Building 28" group (also known as "Commando Yvette") that tried to wrest control of the Likud from its "Princes" at the 1997 party convention, Lieberman was seen as acting on Netanyahu's orders. But after a year and a half as the much reviled "State Manager," Lieberman surprised everyone by leaving the Prime Minister's Office for the private business sector. WHAT WAS behind the split with Netanyahu? Neither side has ever spoken openly about the separation, which caused many political and media observers to surmise that there was a joint strategy at work. Even when Lieberman returned to politics after his short leave to establish his "new immigrants" party, Israel Beiteinu - ostensibly a rival to the Likud - this was interpreted as a move designed to help the beleaguered Netanyahu. It took years for people to realize that the two had genuinely grown apart, while being careful not to voice public criticism of one another, a rule upheld by Netanyahu even this week. Theories about the break-up abound. But the real reason seems to be that Lieberman realized Netanyahu would never manage to achieve his goal of setting a radical new agenda for Israel. Whether he reached that conclusion due to Netanyahu's shortcomings or to forces irrevocably pitted against him, it was clear to Lieberman that he had to go on his way independently. The alliance between Netanyahu and Lieberman - who joined forces with another outsider, Shas leader Arye Deri - was based on a shared antipathy toward the perceived "elites," and on a strategy of mobilizing the various disenfranchised and marginalized groups. But, like many before him, Lieberman discovered the futility of battling the windmills of the establishment, and decided that instead of trying relentlessly to beat them, it might be easier to join them. And he couldn't do that with Netanyahu. IN ITS first stage, Israel Beiteinu seemed to be doing everything but making an effort to reach the mainstream. It was a quintessential special-interest party, aimed at a single, specific constituency. Even its election broadcasts were in Russian, with Hebrew subtitles. But Lieberman had a long-term plan; he was taking a step back, in order to fast-forward. The moment he won four Knesset seats, he became the owner of a political base, and was no longer beholden to anyone else. From there, he could begin his arduous journey to the mainstream. The next stage was to shed a bit of the exclusively Russian image by joining the National Union right-wing alliance, with whom he ran in the 2003 elections, becoming its representative during two brief periods in Ariel Sharon's governments. But the National Union was too far to the right for his purposes. By the end of 2004, and in the last elections, Israel Beiteinu ran again on its own. But this time, it was as an Israeli party. He didn't forsake his Russian base, of course; he just had more subtle ways of reaching them, and was confident of receiving the majority of their votes anyway. Now Lieberman was aiming at a new crowd. To this end, he included former senior security officials Yisrael Hasson and Yitzhak Aharonovitch in his Knesset list. Israel Beiteinu's election broadcasts were in Hebrew, and his own biography was depicted as "the Israeli story," complete with photographs of his family sitting down to a Shabbat meal and celebrating Hanukka. His major PR coup was a joint interview over breakfast in Tel Aviv with Meretz leader Yossi Beilin. He began presenting his party as the "pragmatic and responsible Right," and in one interview even said optimistically, "The public has gotten used to me." His hugely successful electoral results - 11 MKs, and a mere 116 votes less than Likud - was still due mainly to his popularity in the Russian community. But he had clearly gained a foothold in the mainstream, and was eager to capitalize on it. Hurt by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's decision six months ago not to give the party the coveted Internal Security portfolio, Lieberman publicly predicted the coalition's speedy demise. What he did not do, however, was let the insult deflect from his strategy. This week, Lieberman believes he has completed another significant stage in his transition from "Yvette" to "Avigdor." anshel@ejemm.com

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