How did such an inflammatory politician end up in Israel’s 2nd most-powerful job?

To the Point
Israel's new defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, left, next to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as they sign a coalition deal to broaden the government's parliamentary majority on May 25.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s appointment of Avigdor Lieberman to the post of defense minister, Israel’s second-highest position, has set off alarm bells.

The minister is known for his past xenophobic statements: he once called for the beheading of “unloyal” Israelis, floated the idea of bombing Egypt’s Aswan Dam, and currently advocates instituting the death penalty for non-Israelis only.

However, his “bark may turn out to be worse than his bite,” according to Chemi Shalev, US editor for Israeli daily Ha’aretz.

Shalev says that Lieberman’s views aren’t a huge departure from those of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government. “Netanyahu heads what was Israel’s most right-wing government even before Lieberman entered the coalition,” he says. “There have been very provocative statements made by other members of Netanyahu’s coalition that are sometimes equal to, if not more extreme, than those made by Lieberman.”

Lieberman, Shalev points out, is actually more moderate than Netanyahu on one surprising issue: the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestine conflict. Unlike Netanyahu, he “is on record as having said that he would be willing to evacuate settlements” in the West Bank, one of the main obstacles in negotiations between the two sides.

In his new role, Lieberman will have control over the Israeli Defense Force, which will give him considerable influence over daily life. Because of Israel’s policy of universal mandatory service in the military, the IDF is one of the country’s most important social institutions. “He’s the minister in the government which has the most influence over actual life.”

Shalev believes the importance attached to the defense post will serve to moderate Lieberman in other ways. The position is a stepping stone to higher posts. “He’s a very ambitious man who wants to be prime minister one day, and in order to be prime minister, one cannot be a reckless defense minister, Shalev says. “If there’s an optimistic scenario here, it is that he will turn out to be a much more reasonable defense minister than his public statements would lead you to assume.”

Does Lieberman’s rise mirror that of a certain US presidential candidate? Shalev hesitates to draw the parallel. However, Shalev points to similarities between Avigdor Lieberman and the US Republican Party’s presumptive nominee, Donald Trump. Both have a penchant for inflammatory remarks. On a deeper level, both occupy an outsider status of sorts.

A first-generation Russian immigrant to Israel, Lieberman poses a challenge to entrenched political interests. According to Shalev, “the appointment of Lieberman came at the expense of the ouster of his predecessor Moshe Ya’alon. And Moshe Ya’alon was a member of the old establishment elites.”

“Replacing him with a relatively new immigrant from Russia — somebody who wasn’t born in Israel — is some sort of revolution against the establishment and the elites,” says Shalev.

This story comes from an interview on the PRI news affairs show To The Point.

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