Israel's Lieberman: from nightclub bouncer to potential kingmaker

Jerusalem (AFP) –

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Avigdor Lieberman, whose campaign against Israel's religious political parties may make him a kingmaker, has turned from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's closest ally to his biggest headache.

Reported results of Israel's general election on Tuesday show both Netanyahu's right-wing Likud and former military chief Benny Gantz's centrist Blue and White without an obvious path to a majority coalition.

That raised the possibility of a unity government -- exactly what Lieberman has been calling for.

While it might be logical to expect right-winger Lieberman to back Netanyahu, he failed to do so after similar results in April -- with the standoff leading to Tuesday's unprecedented second vote.

He is fiercely opposed to what he sees as the growing influence of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties, which have backed Netanyahu, and his campaign focused on the need to "make Israel normal again."

In remarks on Wednesday morning, Lieberman reiterated he would only be willing to join "a broad liberal government" comprising Netanyahu's Likud with Gantz's Blue and White.

Born in the ex-Soviet republic of Moldova, Lieberman, 61, emigrated to Israel in 1978, and retains a heavy accent when speaking Hebrew.

Upon arrival, the social sciences graduate worked for a time as a nightclub bouncer and also completed his military service.

Lieberman started his career inside Netanyahu's Likud and rose through the ranks to become the prime minister's chief of staff during his first term from 1996 to 1999.

That year, he created the nationalist party Yisrael Beitenu, capturing the support of many of the more than one million Jews who emigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union, an electoral base that has expanded considerably since.

Over the years, Lieberman has held several portfolios, including foreign minister from 2009 to 2012, then again from 2013 to 2015.

As Israel's top diplomat, he was the bane of the European Union, accusing it of following a pro-Palestinian policy hostile to Jews.

Lieberman's image was tainted by a corruption scandal that saw him leave government in 2012, but he was cleared of the charges and a year later he returned.

In November 2018, he resigned as defence minister over a Gaza ceasefire deal he considered a "capitulation to terror".

- Controversial statements -

His party won five seats in April's election, but the staunchly secular nationalist refused to join a coalition under Netanyahu unless the potential ultra-Orthodox partners agreed to legislation on mandatory military service.

Most Jewish Israelis must serve in the military, but the ultra-Orthodox are given exemptions to allow them to pursue religious studies.

Lieberman has made a number of controversial statements over the years.

In 2001, he advocated bombing the Aswan Dam in Egypt, accusing the Arab neighbour with which Israel is bound by a peace treaty of supporting a Palestinian uprising.

In 2014, he called Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas a "diplomatic terrorist".

A year later, Lieberman said that Israeli Arabs disloyal to the country "deserve to have their heads chopped off with an axe".

And in 2016, he accused some Arab members of the Israeli parliament of being "representatives of terrorist organisations".

Before becoming defence minister, he also said he would give Hamas leader Ismail Haniya 48 hours to hand over two detained Israeli civilians and the bodies of soldiers killed in a 2014 war "or you're dead".

Lieberman, who lives in Nokdim, a settlement near Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank, says that he considers peace with the Palestinians unrealistic but is willing to try.