- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 3, 2009

TEL AVIV | Assuming the office of top diplomat has not yet tamed Avigdor Lieberman, judging from his continued blunt statements rejecting Israeli-Arab peace talks.

Israel’s new foreign minister declared recently that the U.S.-backed peace process was at a “dead end.” Then he told an Austrian newspaper that Syria was not a “genuine” partner for peace and that the land-for-peace formula that would return the Golan Heights for a treaty with Damascus “simply doesn’t work.”

Still, the most provocative figure in Israeli politics in a generation has shown flashes of realpolitik that suggest that he may be more amenable to a two-state solution than his rhetoric indicates.

In 2005, weeks after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had completed Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, he stunned hard-liners from his then party, the far-right National Union.

Ariyeh Eldad, a former member of the party, said Mr. Lieberman announced his intention to split the group.

“He said, ‘Your policy of not giving up an inch didn’t lead us anywhere. We can’t prevent any of the withdrawals from Sinai, or Gaza, so we have to go in the government, and work from within,’” Mr. Eldad said.

Since the move, Mr. Lieberman has led his Israel Is Our Home party from a small niche of three representatives to Israel’s third largest party, with 15 seats in parliament and control over several major ministries.

Mr. Lieberman is hard to categorize on Israel’s political spectrum. A resident of the isolated West Bank settlement of Nokdim, he has said he’d be willing to evacuate if Israel separated from the Palestinians. At the same time, he has advocated administering loyalty oaths to Israeli citizens that could be used to discriminate against Israeli Arabs.

Israeli analysts say that Mr. Lieberman has put a nationalist spin on the leftist argument about a need to separate Arab and Jewish states. The Moldovan-born immigrant’s worldview appears to have been shaped by a fear of ethnic minorities, a possible consequence of growing up in the multiethnic Soviet Union.

“You must understand, a minority is a very strong phenomenon in the last century,” he said in an interview 2½ years ago, citing conflicts throughout Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

Ethnic minorities, explained Mr. Lieberman, were a major destabilizer in the 20th century. The problem is even more acute in Israel, he argued, because it lies at ground zero in what he termed, using the phrase of the late U.S. academic Samuel Huntington, the “clash of civilizations” between East and West.

“Countries that work the best are homogenic [sic],” he said.

After immigrating to Israel, serving in the army and enrolling at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Mr. Lieberman became active in the campus branch of the right-of-center Likud party, meeting many figures who would move up in the party together. The fact that he worked as a bouncer and often clashed with Arab students contributed to his bully image. He remained active in politics despite leaving the party, and in the late 1980s began working with a fast-rising young Likud star: Benjamin Netanyahu.

“Netanyahu saw that here’s a guy who doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty and knows how to get things done,” said Arik Elman, a political analyst and producer at a local Russian-language news channel.

Mr. Lieberman helped Mr. Netanyahu ascend to the leadership of the Likud, returned to the party as its first director general and then headed the prime minister’s office after the Likud took back power in 1996.

After the Likud lost to Labor in a landslide three years later, Mr. Lieberman struck out to set up his own political party with Mr. Netanyahu’s blessing, according to Mr. Elman.

As Labor sought unsuccessfully to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians, Mr. Lieberman suggested redrawing the border of the West Bank to annex Jewish settlements to Israel and cede Israeli Arab citizens to a future Palestinian entity — a provocative statement that first won him attention.

Under the administration of Ehud Olmert, who succeeded the comatose Mr. Sharon, Mr. Lieberman spent a couple of months in government in 2006 after Israel’s calamitous summer war with Hezbollah in Lebanon. A much ridiculed job — “Minister of Strategic Threats” — was created for him to focus on the perceived growing threat from Iran.

After Mr. Netanyahu became prime minister and Mr. Lieberman became foreign minister, the conventional wisdom here was that he’d grow into the job and ease some of his harsh tones. He appointed party member Danny Ayalon, a career diplomat and former ambassador to Washington, as his deputy. Mr. Ayalon promised a new sensibility from Mr. Lieberman, and said that he would emphasize focusing on containing Iran as a key to moving the peace process forward.

But Mr. Lieberman has disappointed those hopes, both on style and substance, although he told an Austrian newspaper recently that sanctions, not a military attack, are the best way to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

“There isn’t big excitement among ministry professionals,” said Alon Liel, a former director general of the foreign ministry.

At a time when Israel’s relations with Middle Eastern countries are in retreat and ties with Europe are buckling over the stalled peace process, Mr. Lieberman’s negative statements appear to have compounded the stalemate.

One analyst suggested that he might be playing bad cop to Mr. Netanyahu’s good cop, and noted that the peace process was going nowhere under the previous administration.

But Mr. Lieberman has done some things that seem over the top. For example, he declined to escort U.S. Middle East envoy Sen. George Mitchell out of the Foreign Ministry, breaking a cardinal rule of diplomatic protocol with Israel’s most important ally. Mr. Lieberman has also refused Egyptian requests to apologize for insulting President Hosni Mubarak, whom Mr. Lieberman once said could “go to hell.”

“I gave him more credit,” Mr. Liel said. “I thought he would understand better where he sits. He has made a lot of mistakes. In such a time, we should be taking the best person. It’s like putting in the defense ministry a pacifist. It’s not suited to the job.”

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