Leader of far-right Israeli party set for top foreign post

Tue, Mar 10, 2009, 00:00

WITH COALITION negotiations drawing to a close, it is almost certain that Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party, will be Israel’s next foreign minister.

After the centrist Kadima, which won most votes in last month’s election, and Labour refused generous offers from prime minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu to join a broad-based unity government, the Likud leader agreed to form a narrow coalition made up of right-wing and religious parties.

Mr Lieberman, as leader of the second largest coalition party, demanded the foreign affairs portfolio, considered one of top three ministries, and Mr Netanyahu had little choice but to agree.

Mr Lieberman, one of the most controversial of Israeli politicians, focused his election campaign on challenging the loyalty of Israel’s Arab minority.

He has also made numerous outrageous comments in the past, such as advocating the bombing of Egypt’s Aswan damn and saying Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak “can go to hell”. Added to the fact that Mr Lieberman appears far from the ideal candidate to become Israel’s top diplomat is the fact that he only speaks a basic, heavily-accented English.

It is little surprise that some Israeli commentators are predicting a public relations disaster in waiting.

Some Jewish and Israel advocacy organisations abroad have also expressed concern.

But despite Mr Lieberman’s tough talk and frequent clashes with Arab members of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, he is not as politically intransigent as his opponents allege.

The Yisrael Beiteinu leader supports the establishment of a Palestinian state, which is a position not endorsed by Mr Netanyahu. He also advocates handing over Palestinian neighbourhoods of Jerusalem, and even said that he would give up his home in the West Bank settlement of Nokdim, near Bethlehem, as part of a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Demography has always been the most important factor for Mr Lieberman. In return for Israel annexing some West Bank Jewish settlement areas under a peace deal, he wants a future Palestinian state to incorporate Israeli Arab communities close to the existing West Bank border.

Mr Lieberman came to Israel as a teenager from Moldova and much of his political support comes from Israelis who emigrated from Russia. He has maintained close ties with Russian and other former-Commonwealth of Independent States leaders and this is one area of Israel’s foreign policy that is expected to improve if Mr Lieberman is appointed.