- The Washington Times - Monday, November 13, 2006

JERUSALEM — Winning a seat in Israel’s exclusive security Cabinet and a post as deputy to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert have done nothing to mellow Israel’s most infamous shoot-from-the-hip politician.

Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the conservative Russian immigrant party Yisrael Beitenu, unleashed a barrage during his first week in government that might have been designed to discomfit his new coalition partners.

In a series of interviews, he named the division of Cyprus as a model for separating Israeli Arabs from Jews, identified Jordan as Israel’s best partner to improve the lives of Palestinians, and called Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas a “professional liar.”

Mr. Lieberman’s bluntness has made him a magnet for hostility from the Israeli left and the nation’s critics abroad. They have interpreted his inclusion in the Olmert government as evidence of a government without ideological moorings.

But Mr. Lieberman insists that his controversial proposal to redraw Israel’s border with the Palestinians — swapping Israeli Arab towns in Israel for Jewish settlements in the West Bank — is the only way for the two nations to live in peace. His aim is to reduce the percentage of Arabs in Israel, fearing they will have conflicting loyalties between Israel and the future Palestinian state.

“The treatments of today are small akamol,” he said in an interview with The Washington Times last week, using the Hebrew word for aspirin. “We continue to keep the tensions, the conflict and the bloodshed. … A surgical operation is a strong measure, but you can achieve a stable solution.”

The deputy prime minister denied that any Israeli Arabs would be forced to move out of Israel under his plan to cede Arab towns near the West Bank’s northwest border and hand over Palestinian neighborhoods in Jerusalem.

But some 500,000 Arabs now living in Israel with Israeli citizenship would suddenly find their homes on the Palestinian side of the border, and many could lose their citizenship in what critics say is a not-so-subtle means of disenfranchising a large share of Israel’s 1.3 million Arab citizens.

The plan has been condemned by Arab leaders and others in the international community. But in a recent Tel Aviv University poll among Israeli Jews, only one in three respondents was unhappy about Mr. Lieberman’s appointment.

“If a Palestinian has a right to the Palestinian state, then the Jews have a right to a Jewish state,” Mr. Olmert said recently. “Why do the Palestinians have a right to get 1 states?”

Mr. Lieberman’s political career has been on a steady rise since he started running the Likud Party in the early 1990s under Benjamin Netanyahu — at the time a neophyte opposition leader. Concerned that Mr. Netanyahu had given up too much to the Palestinians in U.S.-brokered talks in 1997, he formed his own party of Russian immigrants in 1999.

His image as a straight-talking tough leader helped his party win almost 10 percent of the seats in parliament in the last election, backed heavily by Russian immigrants. His appointment as deputy prime minister gives him a high-profile platform to seek future gains.

For now, his ability to shape Israeli policy seems marginal. And yet, his 11 parliamentary seats position him to be the potential spoiler if Mr. Olmert and his dovish Labor Party partners revisit plans for a unilateral pullback from the West Bank.

“I assume at the moment of decision, the prime minister will continue the partnership with us and won’t continue the partnership with Lieberman, which is against the desires of his voters,” said Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh, whose Labor Party was deeply divided over whether to remain in the same government with Mr. Lieberman.

Though his views are commonly viewed as far-right, his emphasis on demographics and territorial compromises — especially on Jerusalem — sets him apart from most Israeli conservatives and could make him appealing to centrists.

But Mr. Lieberman is short on details on how to implement his plan, and he shifted uncomfortably when asked about a Palestinian partner to redraw the border, rejecting Mr. Abbas as unreliable.

In the absence of an Palestinian interlocutor, he suggested a “joint venture” with Jordan to first improve the Palestinian economy.

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