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Profile: Avigdor Lieberman

Avigdor Lieberman, leader of Yisrael Beiteinu
Moldovan-born Mr Lieberman was once a nightclub bouncer

Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, has emerged as one of Israel's most controversial politicians.

With polls predicting his party may eclipse Labour as Israel's third largest in elections on 10 February, he has gone from being seen as a marginal political player to a potential kingmaker in the space of a decade.

His hardline policies on security and the country's Israeli-Arab minority have grown in popularity amid a general swing to the right among an electorate strongly supportive of Israel's recent military operation in Gaza.

The Moldovan-born politician advocates swapping swathes of Israeli-Arab populated territory in Israel with Israeli settlement blocs in the West Bank.

Under the party slogan "No loyalty, no citizenship", Mr Lieberman also wants a law demanding Israeli-Arabs pledge allegiance to Israel as a Jewish state and committing them to some form of national service.

Fraud probe

And his blunt invective and the blatant disregard for political correctness have further raised concern internationally and on the Israeli left.

For example, he has said that Israeli-Arab MPs who met Hamas should be executed like Nazi collaborators after the Nuremburg trials.

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A look at the career of Avigdor Lieberman

And according to the Jerusalem Post he said in January 2009 that Israel should "continue to fight Hamas just like the United States did with the Japanese in World War II" - widely interpreted as a reference to the dropping of nuclear bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

He is also under investigation for fraud, embezzlement and money-laundering, although he denies any wrong-doing and says the probe is politically motivated.

The Yisrael Beiteinu party - or "Israel my home" - draws much of its support from the one million Jews who came to Israel after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Settlers' champion

Mr Lieberman - once a nightclub bouncer - became a major player in Israeli politics in March 2006, when his party won 11 seats.

This paved the way for him to become deputy prime minister (of which there are several in the government), and Minister of Strategic Affairs.

He did not immediately become part of the then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government, led by the Kadima party.

But he joined in November 2006 to shore up the rickety coalition, which saw its ratings plummet following what many Israelis saw as the bungled war with Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006.

Kadima had dropped its main election pledge to withdraw from a number of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, opening the way for Yisrael Beiteinu, which opposed this policy, to join the coalition.

Mr Lieberman is a champion of the Israeli settlers and takes a tough line on unilateral withdrawals from Jewish settlements arguing that Israel gets nothing in return, particularly security guarantees.

He pulled out of that government in January 2008, however, refusing to back its peace talks with the Palestinians on core issues under the US-backed Annapolis process.

Mr Lieberman is strongly opposed to the concept of "land for peace" on which the proposed two-state solution is based.

He says it means "a state-and-a-half for one people and half a state for the other" - in reference to the fifth of the population of Israel who are Israeli-Arabs, descended from families that remained in what is now Israel after the state's creation in 1948.

Opposed withdrawal

Mr Lieberman's political career dates back to a stint as director general of the centre-right Likud Party from 1993-1996, followed by a year as head of the office of then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Mr Netanyahu is now showing signs of concern that his party - expected to gain most seats in the upcoming elections - is losing votes to his former employee.

Mr Lieberman has served as an MK in the last three Knessets.

From 1999 to 2002, he served as minister of national infrastructure, and from 2003 to 2004 he served as minister of transportation.

But in 2004, he was sacked from the governing coalition after opposing former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw from the Jewish settlements in Gaza, which went ahead anyway in the summer of 2005.

Mr Lieberman was born in 1958 in Kishinev in the USSR (now Chisinau in Moldova) and moved to Israel at the age of 20, where he gained a BA in social sciences from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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