"He's a gangster, but he's our gangster."

The Attorney General has announced a long expected decision. He will not bring charges against Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on the big case that has been under investigation for 3 to 16 years, depending on how one counts. That concerns financial transfers via fictitious companies located overseas formally controlled by Lieberman''s daughter. However, there will be charges on counts of fraud and violation of public trust concerning Lieberman''s relations with an ambassador who served in Belarus and won appointment as Israel''s ambassador to Latvia, who was then accused of passing information improperly to Lieberman. According to the indictment against Lieberman, the Foreign Minister paid off the ambassador by supporting his appointment to Latvia. For a decent account in English of prominent details, see this.
The issue is front and center in all Israel''s media. Prominent politician, senior minister, and most prominent ally of the Prime Minister in the current election campaign, accused of a crime.
Is the accusation important enough to require Lieberman to resign as Foreign Minister, Member of Knesset, and candidate for re-election?
So far we''ve heard Lieberman''s narrative of being persecuted because he is Lieberman, his account of the accusation as dealing with an incident of omission rather than commission, and minor in the extreme. He has received legal advice that it is not necessary to resign from anything.
From commentators we''ve heard accusations that the prosecutors were too lenient. Long ago they should have brought a case to court, despite doubts about being able to achieve a guilty verdict, and to have allowed the judges to decide the matter.
From politicians in the center and left, we have heard demands that Lieberman resign immediately, given the substantial stains on his reputation and credibility, and the damage done to Israel''s reputation by having him as our Foreign Minister currently and perhaps after the election as well.
From the prosecutors, both in documents and comments to the media, we have heard that the decision not to prosecute on the major case is not a certificate of Kashrut, purity or integrity for Lieberman. The case was problematic, involving foreign governments whose personnel were lax in cooperating, and a key witness from overseas who changed her story from one that would have helped convict Lieberman to "I really don''t remember all the details." The message from the prosecutors is that Lieberman is a problem for the voters, to decide if he or his party deserves support.
There are signs in the latest polls that Likud our Home is suffering. Voters have gone not to parties in the center or left as much as to a likely partner of Netanyahu on the right, i.e., Jewish Home.
Stepping back from the details, still quite fluid, Lieberman''s case tells us something about Israel, and especially that slice of its population represented by the roughly one million Russian-speaking immigrants who have arrived since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The culture brought by those new Israelis includes several elements. As in all descriptions of "political culture," the effort is at least partly impressionistic, informed by surveys, writings by insiders and serious students of the population, and numerous conversations with Russian speakers from a variety of geographical and professional backgrounds who have become close friends.
It is conventional to say that Lieberman appeals to much of that population on account of the force by which he articulates opinions and reports about threats against Israel. The threats come not only from Palestinians and other Arabs, but from Western politicians beholden to the Arabs and/or do not care what happens to the Jews, as well as from intellectuals, and media personalities (some of whom are Jews and Israelis) who think along the same lines as those politicians.
Consistent with his style were condemnations he expressed this week about European governments anxious to condemn Israel for its settlements but unwilling to condemn Hamas for its violence and repeated refusal to recognize Israel''s legitimate existence. Lieberman compared the Europeans with those of the 1940s who turned a cold shoulder to Jews seeking refuge from the Nazis.
One of the themes in the culture brought by immigrants from the former Soviet Union is an admiration of strong leadership. The theme goes back to the Czars and Stalin, and affected Jews in the Soviet Union even though they suffered from such leaders, and appears in the support by Russians (and Lieberman) for the current strong man, Vladimir Putin.
Another theme, somewhat in contradiction to admiration of strong leadership, but also rooted in the Soviet experience, is suspicion of government and its authorities. A number of our Russian friends began a relationship suspicious of our questions. Would we be like the neighbors they knew from their homeland who report unusual behavior to the secret police?
Lieberman benefits from both streams. He is forceful as a speaker and runs his political party singlehandedly. There is no primary open to dues-paying members. The committee that decides about the listing of candidates accepts his dictates. At the same time, he is the ultimate outsider, with enemies in the offices of the state prosecutor and harassed by western-oriented intellectuals and media personalities who are also too much inclined to an excessive accommodation with the Palestinians and other enemies of Israel.
One of my Russian speaking friends supplied the quotation that heads this note. He concedes that Lieberman goes over the lines of legality and morality in his personal and political dealings. "He''s a gangster, but he''s our gangster."
Intense support of the undesirable is by no means a uniquely Israeli phenemrnon. I once heard a ranking member of an American administration use virtually the same phrase (in English not Hebrew) about the head of a Latin American government supported financially, militarily, and politically by the United States.
The forceful personality of an outsider persecuted by the legal and intellectual establishment worked to Lieberman''s advantage as head of Israel our Home, a political party that may have attracted 80 percent of the Russian-speakers'' votes, and whose electorate was perhaps 80 percent Russian-speaking.
A short while ago, however, Lieberman and Netanyahu agreed to run together under the banner of Likud our Home. Netanyahu inserted Lieberman''s hand-picked candidates into the list decided by a primary election open to Likud dues paying members. Likudniks charged that Lieberman got the better deal in the arrangement, and that Bibi caved in to Avigdor.
There is another change in the air. The mass migration from the former Soviet Union came mostly in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The migrants have aged, and many are no longer with us. Their children and grandchildren have gone to school, the IDF and universities in Israel. For many, their Hebrew is better than their Russian. They are more Israeli than Russian.
Are the tensions between Israeli and Russian cultures already showing up in the first polls showing a decline in overall support for Likud our Home the day after the Attorney General''s announcement of a indictment? Will there be a serious further erosion in the support of Likud our Home that might not have happened--or been as great--if Lieberman was running as the head of Israel our Home? Will there be pressure from Netanyahu, or those close to him, for Lieberman to do what is appropriate for the co-head of the leading party before that party loses the momentum that had seemed destined to keep it as the party that would form the next government?
Whatever happens might also reflect developments 200 meters to the east of these fingers and elsewhere in the West Bank. Palestinian youths continue to throw stones and fire bombs, there has been one death and numerous injuries from what may be the increasing severlty of responses from the police and IDF. Israelis are pondering the onset of intifada #3. If escalations of violence and counter-violence continue, they may overcome the noise against Lieberman and aid Likud our Home as well as other parties to the right of center.
Sabbath Eve and Sabbath itself are not usually occasions for great drama and decisions in this Jewish country. Next week will be interesting, and might be exciting.