- The Washington Times - Friday, February 20, 2009

TEL AVIV

Avigdor Lieberman, who all but anointed Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel’s next prime minister on Thursday, is relying on Daniel Ayalon, a former ambassador to the U.S., to reassure Israel’s allies that Mr. Lieberman would not upend Israeli foreign policy.

Mr. Lieberman’s endorsement appeared to break a weeklong deadlock that emerged out of the near tie between Mr. Netanyahu’s party and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni’s Kadima party in last week’s election.

Infamous for his blunt criticism of Israel’s Arab minority and Arab nations, Mr. Lieberman, who heads a rightist party called “Israel is our home,” is seeking the helm of one of three key ministries: finance, defense or foreign affairs.

He has been aided in his rise by Mr. Ayalon, who was just elected to parliament as a member of Mr. Lieberman’s party and has been meeting with Western and Middle Eastern ambassadors this week to convince them that Mr. Lieberman is not as bad as he has been portrayed.

“It shows the adaptation to reality,” Mr. Ayalon told The Washington Times. “Once you explain to people and you dispel all the myths and dispel all the name calling, there is some substance here that we have to grapple with. It’s not all black and white.”

Often disparaged as a version of Austria’s late rightist leader Jorge Haider, Mr. Lieberman has fanned ethnic tensions by threatening to strip Israel’s 1.4 million Arabs of voting rights if they don’t swear loyalty to the Jewish state.

Mr. Ayalon, who said he hopes to be deputy foreign minister if Mr. Lieberman becomes foreign minister, asserted, however, that the Moldovan-born politician is a “pragmatist” who wants to build “bridges” to the Arab world.

Immigrants in Israel from the former Soviet Union say Mr. Lieberman is popular because he is similar to autocratic rulers such as Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Mr. Ayalon said, however, that Mr. Lieberman is a “democrat.” While not “politically correct,” Mr. Lieberman’s approach to Israel’s problems is “out of the box,” Mr. Ayalon said.

The prospect of a major role for Mr. Lieberman in Israel’s next government is worrisome for those who fear it will cause tension in relations with the Obama administration. President Obama has said he plans to push Palestinian statehood; Mr. Lieberman has said that the time is not ripe to renew negotiations.

First, he says, the West needs to curb Iran’s power and the Palestinians need to resolve the split between Hamas and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

“The ingredients are not there,” Mr. Ayalon said.

Like Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Lieberman favors boosting the Palestinian economy to strengthen grassroots support for diplomacy and reduce violence, Mr. Ayalon said.

The two have known each other since 1997, when Mr. Lieberman interviewed Mr. Ayalon to become a foreign policy adviser to Mr. Netanyahu during his first tenure as prime minister.

Mr. Ayalon said Mr. Lieberman impressed him as an intellectual and a literary person. He admitted that some colleagues from the diplomatic corps were surprised and even shocked when he joined Mr. Lieberman’s party, but said others congratulated him.

Shlomo Aronson, a professor at Hebrew University, said Mr. Lieberman’s popularity reflects Israeli fatigue with peace negotiations, but that his views of Israeli Arabs are disturbing.

“Mr. Lieberman is talking about pushing the Israeli Arabs over the boundary to the Arab states,” he said. “It’s unacceptable to most Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews don’t want to push them out.”

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