The enigmatic Avigdor Lieberman

Of the many enigmatic figures in Israeli politics, none surpass Avigdor Lieberman.

Avigdor Lieberman (photo credit: REUTERS)
Avigdor Lieberman
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In January 2003, in the course of an interview given to a local paper in Tel Aviv, MK Avigdor Lieberman was asked about suspicions of election bribery in the Likud – his previous party. His reply was: “There is a major crisis in the political system, and there is no reason for malicious joy, because in the final reckoning it leads to lack of trust by the general public in the whole political system, and this is pretty sad.”
According to the draft indictment submitted last week by the attorney-general, by 2003 Lieberman was himself involved in all sorts of financial irregularities. Of course, Lieberman remains innocent of all the charges unless proven guilty, though if he is really innocent, the fact that he went to so much trouble to cover his tracks in all sorts of business transactions mentioned in the indictment seems strange, to say the least.
But perhaps there is a logical explanation to this. With Lieberman, nothing is simple.
Of the many enigmatic figures in Israeli politics, none surpass Avigdor Lieberman.
Despite his rather thuggish appearance, and occasional horror-evoking political statements, anyone who has been in personal contact with him will tell you the man is a gentleman, an interesting conversationalist, and pleasant to work with.
My own encounter with Lieberman in 2002, when he was minister for national infrastructures, and I was involved in preparing the report of the Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry on the Water Crisis, left me highly impressed by the man’s efficiency and pleasant manner. To the present day, he greets me when he sees me. This is not something one takes for granted with politicians, especially not if one belongs to another political camp.
Just before the 2006 elections, Yossi Beilin – at that time leader of Meretz – developed a rather surprising friendship with Lieberman, for which he was derided by his colleagues.
In a joint interview given by the two to Yediot Aharonot in February 2006, Lieberman had the following to say about Beilin: “I think he is an amazing man. I respect him – even admire him – for his willingness to stick to his opinions and swim against the stream...
Most politicians flow with the opinion polls.
Beilin represents a different sort of politics, and I like it.”
And what did Beilin have to say about Lieberman? “I think Avigdor is extremely intelligent, a successful politician, and a firstclass doer. He is a wise Jew, but manages his electorate in a cynical manner. He speaks to the Archie Bunkers of Israeli society. He speaks to the Israeli public that hates Arabs, and he therefore proposes death sentences for terrorists, even though he knows it will get us kicked out of the community of civilized nations.”
However, what Beilin was most impressed about was the fact that for real-politik reasons, Lieberman had given up the dream of “Greater Israel,” even though his views on how to separate Arabs from Jews was not to Beilin’s liking.
Not surprisingly, this mutual admiration society soon crashed against reality, and in October 2007, after Lieberman – by now Minister for Strategic Issues – blamed the Israeli Left and the agreements it had reached with the Palestinians for Jewish deaths in Palestinian acts of terror, Beilin reacted as if he had just discovered that Dr. Jekyll was also Mr. Hyde: “Only a twisted mind can relate the blood spilt to the agreements that were signed, rather than look at the number of persons killed before 1967 and since then, and understand the terrible price we have paid for our sticking to the occupied territories.”
Today Beilin is no longer in politics, after his failure as Meretz leader, and Lieberman might also be on his way out – though for totally different reasons. Recent opinion polls show Lieberman approaching his dream of 20 Knesset seats (up from 15 today). This is quite surprising, given the fact that he has not managed to deliver on his promise to bring about a change on civil issues such as marriages, conversions and burials (except for a minor change, regarding civil marriages between those defined as having no religion), his failure to get through legislation directed primarily against Israel's Arab citizens, concerning allegiance to the State, and a prohibition on their marking the Nakba, and his overall rather problematic record as minister for foreign affairs. Lieberman’s voters, who are not impressed by the indictment, apparently do not view his enigmatic record as a personal failure, and continue to see him as a strong leader who must simply gain more electoral strength to succeed.
“Everything is heaven,” was Lieberman’s reaction to the news about the indictment.
That is his reaction whenever asked what is happening. What he really thinks and feels is anyone’s guess.

The writer is a former Knesset employee.