/ 22 March 2009

The return of Lieberman

The man who will almost certainly be Israel’s next foreign minister is a former nightclub bouncer who believes the Hamas government in Gaza should be toppled and that Arab Israelis should swear an oath of allegiance to Israel or be stripped of their citizenship.

Avigdor Lieberman, the outspoken far-right Israeli politician, is expected to be appointed his country’s next foreign minister in a new coalition deal.

Head of the Israel Our Home party, he has signed a preliminary agreement with the Likud leader, Binyamin Netanyahu, who is expected to become prime minister soon. Under the deal, agreed late on Sunday night, Lieberman would be both foreign minister and a deputy prime minister, giving him an important influence in shaping the new government’s policies.

His party would also have four other ministers in the Cabinet, including national security minister.

Netanyahu still has to sign agreements with the other smaller parties that will make up his government, but it appears likely he will lead a right-wing coalition that will take power later this month.

In February’s elections Tzipi Livni, of the centrist Kadima party, emerged the winner, but the overall strength of the right-wing bloc meant Netanyahu, a close second, was asked to form a government.

Despite new efforts he has not been able to agree to a broader unity coalition with Livni that might have offered him more stability.

Talks continue between the two camps behind the scenes, but Livni seems likely to join the opposition.

Both Netanyahu and Lieberman have stopped short of endorsing a two-state peace agreement with the Palestinians, which may set them at odds with the international community, particularly the United States, which has promised to ”aggressively” pursue a lasting peace.

Lieberman (50) a Russian-speaking immigrant and former nightclub bouncer from former Soviet Moldova, resigned from the government in January last year in protest at the restarting of peace talks with the Palestinians, saying:
”Negotiations on the basis of land for peace are a critical mistake … and will destroy us.” He campaigned on the promise of a new law aimed at the country’s Arab minority, which would require them to swear an oath of loyalty to Israel as a Jewish state or lose their citizenship.

H e also advocates carving out part of Galilee and handing it over to Palestinian control, stripping the residents of their Israeli citizenship. Those policies proved popular enough for him to come third at the polls, but the oath of loyalty is thought unlikely to come into law.

The agreement between Netanyahu and Lieberman gave a taste of the policies that would follow. ”Toppling the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip will be an Israeli strategic goal,” the agreement said. The new government would act ”with determination” to stop rocket fire by militants in Gaza.

It also said: ”The government will not conduct political negotiations with terrorist organisations or terrorist elements.”

Netanyahu has said peace talks with the Palestinians will not succeed and he would rather pursue an ”economic peace” — financial investment in the occupied West Bank.

The agreement also said Israel would make every effort to prevent the nuclear armament of Iran.

Lieberman’s elevation to the foreign ministry is likely to bring difficult responses internationally. Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, said Europe still supported a two-state peace agreement.

”We will be ready to do business as usual, normally with a government in Israel that is prepared to continue talking and working for a two-state solution,” he said. ”If that is not the case, the situation would be different.”

Riad Malki, the Palestinian foreign minister, said: ”We have to declare that sadly there is no partner on the Israeli side to negotiate with.”

If Lieberman becomes Israel’s next foreign minister his hardline positions could make for awkward meetings with his international counterparts. Lieberman’s party’s vision on the two-state solution states: ”Israel needs to explain that the demand for a Palestinian state and the refugees’ right of return is a cover for radical Islam’s attempt to destroy the state of Israel.” —