One of Israel’s most gruff and polarizing figures has now been appointed the country’s defense minister.
Born in Moldova, in the former Soviet Union, Avigdor Lieberman immigrated to Israel in 1978 and worked as a bouncer while going to college. His thick Russian accent in Hebrew adds to his no-nonsense demeanor.
In the 1990s, he entered politics, serving as a senior aide to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his first term in office.
Then, Lieberman formed a political party called Yisrael Beiteinu, or “Israel Our Home.” It’s an ultranationalist party representing immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Lieberman, 57, is a West Bank settler himself.
He’s known for his brash statements. Recently he said if he were defense minister, he’d have a top Hamas leader killed if he did not hand over the remains of two Israeli soldiers held by the Islamist group in Gaza. Columnist Ronen Bergman recently described Lieberman as "an impulsive and reckless extremist."
How did a man who only served a short time in the army when he was around 20 years old take on perhaps the most important position in the Israeli leadership, after the prime minister?
It’s the latest chapter in a fascinating political drama in Israel, pitting seemingly pragmatic Israeli military chiefs against the country's more hardline political leaders.
A big moment leading up to Lieberman’s appointment happened in March, when an Israeli soldier was filmed shooting and killing a Palestinian assailant while he was wounded on the ground.
Israel's then-defense minister Moshe Ya'alon spoke out against the soldier's actions, but Lieberman supported the soldier.
Soon after, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, the army's deputy chief of staff said he finds trends of hatred and violence in Israel that remind him of 1930s Germany. Ya'alon supported the army official’s right to speak his mind, but Netanyahu was angry. Then rumors started to emerge that Netanyahu was offering the defense minister post to Lieberman.
US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said that Lieberman and his ultranationalist party joining Netanyahu's governing coalition "raises legitimate questions about the direction [the Israeli government] may be heading in and what kind of policies it may adopt.”
When Lieberman officially assumed his role as defense minister, he and Netanyahu both said they were committed to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — creating a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
Some say Lieberman is more pragmatic behind the scenes than he is on Facebook and TV.
But Lieberman is also surprising and unpredictable.
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