Tough-talking Lieberman offers southern comfort on successful road trip

Taking a moment to regroup before setting out on a whirlwind tour of the South on Wednesday, Israel Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman sat with his staff at a road stop near Yad Mordechai, casually sipping a cup of tea. Lieberman's campaign workers were busy preparing their cars and minibuses - all covered in Israeli flags and party stickers - before the day's journey, when a middle-aged woman approached and launched into an impassioned speech. "He's the kind of leader we've been waiting for," the woman said, pointing at Lieberman. A news crew on hand, waiting to accompany Lieberman, began filming her. "He knows how to talk to them in their own language," she said. "They'll understand him." Given the proximity of Yad Mordechai to the Gaza Strip - just a few kilometers away - the recent rocket barrage that rained down on the region both before and during Operation Cast Lead, and Lieberman's tough rhetoric towards Hamas and the Israeli Arabs who support them, there was no need for her to explain who "they" were, or what Lieberman would need to tell them. Indeed, the recent Gaza battle lingered in the atmosphere in the South on Wednesday. While the rocket fire has continued, albeit much less than before or during the war, residents said they were encouraged by the army's "great effort" but discouraged by the politicians' "cold feet," and Lieberman arrived to address just that. As the caravan of campaign workers and journalists traveled through the now quiet junctions of the Gaza envelope area, graffiti on an electric box read; "Soldier, give 'em hell!" The caravan pulled into its first stop, Kibbutz Nirim, and Lieberman immediately went to work. Sitting inside a lounge, he listened to local farmers complain about fields and houses damaged during the fighting, and the bureaucratic snafus preventing them from receiving government compensation. One told Lieberman that there was still daily sniper fire. "They fire at us every day," the man said. "It's extremely dangerous for my workers to go out the fields, but what are we supposed to do, this is our livelihood." Lieberman agreed, saying that "they shoot at us even during this period of calm." "There's a serious problem here and someone needs to take care of it," another farmer said. "I've been here for many years, and I don't plan on going anywhere. I tell my workers, 'We're going to continue growing our crops up to the border fence.' This is our land and I won't give up on a centimeter of it." "That's right," Lieberman responded. "We won't give up on it." "I've been down here many times over the last few years," Lieberman continued, "and I know the reality here very well. I'll say it clearly - this is where our national strength is - with the residents of the South." But not all of the kibbutz members who had come to hear Lieberman speak were convinced. "I don't think his overall message is going to catch on here," said Tal, who said that Nirim was traditionally affiliated with Meretz. "We're left-wing here, even with all the rockets." "That's not true," another kibbutz member said. "We're tired of living like this. It's correct to say that this kibbutz has voted Meretz over the years, but just wait and see, there are going to be some big surprises here on election day." The next stop was the Kerem Shalom crossing with Gaza - a highly politicized location both because of the humanitarian aid that goes through the crossing to Gaza, and the nearby Philadelphi Corridor, which many politicians, including Lieberman, had insisted on retaking before ending Operation Cast Lead. But Lieberman used the opportunity to express his dismay with the Likud's attacks against him. "I speak with [Likud Chairman Binyamin] Netanyahu almost every day," Lieberman said. "But everyone from his [Knesset] list attacks us. Still, I don't see it as an attack against me, it's an attack against Bibi. Even he says that he doesn't agree with the attacks against us." Therefore, Lieberman explained, he viewed the attacks against his party from Likud members as an "internal intifada" - a struggle within the party for positioning before the elections results come in. The Israel Beiteinu leader also used the impromptu press briefing to deny reports that he had once been a member of the outlawed far-right Kach organization, led by the late Rabbi Meir Kahane. "The level of lies and slander against us is unlike anything I have ever seen," he said. From Kerem Shalom, Lieberman and his entourage continued on to Netivot, where he and party member Uzi Landau spoke to supporters and shook hands with curious passersby. Netivot resident Eli Zagool said he thought Lieberman would have a stronger than expected showing in town, traditionally a Likud stronghold. "He's got a lot of votes here, votes that used to be Likud," Zagool said. "It's not just the Russians, and it's not connected to the religious. I'm religious, and I see that he's not, but the state is more important than those things right now. It's basically a matter of life or death." Asked to explain why he thought Lieberman would do better, Zagool cited two reasons. "First it's the war," he said. "We got hit here with a lot of rockets and people are upset about the way it ended. Look - they're still firing at us every day. "But the other reason, it's we see how he deals with the Arabs in the Knesset, he's not embarrassed, he tells them to their face. And we have a lot of problems here with the Beduin from Rahat. They steal our cars and harass our women. "I believe that he's the only one who can deal with those problems, he's strong in that area," Zagool said. "I'm definitively voting for him." The final stop was the Ofakim market, where dozens of residents joined the campaign workers, cheering and dancing behind the candidate. As Lieberman made the rounds, a woman approached him with a fresh loaf of bread. "Here," she said, "eat," and Lieberman obliged. "He's such a nice man," the woman said, beaming at him. "Who else says it like he does?"