Israeli ultranationalist poised for election gains

JERUSALEM—The hottest slogan in the Israeli election campaign is a not-so-veiled attack on the country’s Arab minority: “Without loyalty, there is no citizenship.”

The motto is plastered nationwide across buses and billboards. Above it looms the dour, bearded face of its mastermind, Avigdor Lieberman, who is enjoying a surge in opinion polls that indicate he could emerge as the political kingmaker after Tuesday’s election.

Recent polls have Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party edging past the Labor Party to become the third-largest faction in parliament. The two leading rivals for prime minister—Benjamin Netanyahu and Tzipi Livni—would have a hard time forming a coalition government without him.

It is a dramatic shift for an immigrant who was seen as a marginal player when he entered Israeli politics a decade ago.

Lieberman’s most polarizing policy is his initiative to redraw Israel’s borders—pushing areas with heavy concentrations of Arabs outside the country and under Palestinian jurisdiction.

Those who remain would be forced to sign an oath of loyalty to the Jewish state, and anyone who refused would lose the right to vote or run for office. Some 20 percent of Israel’s 7 million citizens are Arabs and about a dozen serve in the 120-seat parliament.

The Moldovan-born Lieberman, who still speaks in a thick Russian accent, seems unaffected by charges of racism, saying tough times require tough policies. He cites the refusal of Israeli Arabs to serve in the army or national service programs and their lawmakers’ contacts with Israel’s enemies in the Arab world.

“Israel is under a dual terrorist attack, from within and from without,” Lieberman said at a security conference Monday. “And terrorism from within is always more dangerous than terrorism from without.”

Lieberman’s rhetoric is resonating with Jewish voters who have grown frustrated by tense relations with Arab citizens. The outgoing government’s lack of progress in peace talks with the Palestinians, along with the recent war with Hamas militants in Gaza, brought a yearning for a tough-talking leader.

“The war has polarized opinions, and he has simple answers, black and white answers,” said Yitzhak Katz, a pollster at the Maagar Mohot institute.

Supporters see Lieberman as Israel’s greatest hope. His critics call him a dangerous man.

“We need someone like him to deal with the Arabs, someone with a different mentality,” said Itzik Shimon, 45, a Jerusalem green grocer. “We’re too merciful with them. He won’t be.”

Yossi Sarid, a dovish former lawmaker, sees Lieberman as a threat to Israeli democracy.

“What’s the difference between his party and all the fascist parties in Europe?” Sarid asked. “It’s the same message, the same technique, taking advantage of the same fears.”

Ahmad Tibi, an Arab lawmaker and frequent Lieberman sparring partner, goes even further, calling on the international community to boycott Israel if Lieberman rises to power, as was done when far-right leader Jeorg Haider joined Austria’s government.

“Haider was a local racist who fought against immigrants and incited xenophobia,” Tibi said. “Here we have a racist immigrant who is fighting against the residents of the land, the natives. This is an even worse form of racism.”

Lieberman, 50, who once worked as a bar bouncer, immigrated to Israel in 1978. He became active in the hawkish Likud Party while studying at Hebrew University in the 1980s, earning a reputation as a powerful behind-the-scenes player.

He rose to prominence as the engineer of Netanyahu’s razor-thin 1996 election victory over Nobel peace laureate Shimon Peres, and later became Netanyahu’s chief of staff.

Lieberman, who lives in the West Bank settlement of Nokdim, later quit Likud and was elected to parliament in 1999 as head of Israel Beiteinu (Israel Our Home), a party he established to represent the more than 1 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

The party started out with four seats in parliament, but swelled to 11 seats in the last election in 2006. Recent polls indicate it could win as many 18 seats next week, with support stretching beyond immigrant communities and into the Israeli mainstream.

A fraud investigation against Lieberman, in which his daughter, his lawyer and five other confidants were detained, doesn’t seem to have hurt his popularity. Lieberman, who refused to be interviewed for this article, has lashed out at police, charging that their probe was politically motivated.

Lieberman’s tough stances have long stoked controversy. As a Cabinet minister earlier this decade, he called for the bombing of Palestinian gas stations, banks and commercial centers. Last year, he said Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak could “go to hell.”

Lieberman has called for executing Israeli Arab lawmakers who met with leaders of the militant group Hamas. He also led a recent parliamentary drive to exclude Arab parties from running for election—a move that was overturned by Israel’s Supreme Court.

Despite his rhetoric, Lieberman has shown signs of pragmatism. He served as a Cabinet minister in two centrist Israeli governments, though he was fired for opposing the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza and resigned to protest peace talks begun at the 2007 conference in Annapolis, Md. His plan for redrawing Israel’s borders would also mean dismantling some Jewish settlements, possibly his own.

More than 20,000 Israelis have endorsed Lieberman’s drive to institute a loyalty oath—even it’s based on a philosophy that the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz on Wednesday said “has its roots in a dark conceptual world.”

“A democracy doesn’t need to commit suicide to prove its justness. Israel has to stop apologizing,” he has said. “The Arabs have all the rights, but they don’t have a right over the land of Israel.”