x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Lieberman in line for prominent Israeli post

Benjamin Netanyahu is likely to give Israel's foreign minister position to controversial nationalist Avigdor Lieberman.

TEL AVIV // Avigdor Lieberman, an ultra-nationalist who has called for the execution of Israeli Palestinian legislators and once said Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, should "go to hell", may be tapped as Israel's foreign minister in an appointment likely to create a stir both at home and abroad. Mr Lieberman was due to meet with Benjamin Netanyahu, the right-wing Likud leader charged with forming a government, late yesterday for a discussion described by Israeli media as decisive. The outcome was expected to include handing Mr Lieberman the foreign portfolio. The position would make Mr Lieberman one of Israel's top decision-makers on issues including major military operations and the peace process with the Palestinians and with Syria. While the appointment is not yet certain, analysts said Mr Netanyahu would have little choice but to name Mr Lieberman to the post. Mr Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu movement became the third-biggest party in Israel after national elections on Feb 10. Only with Yisrael Beiteinu's 15 parliamentary seats could Mr Netanyahu cobble together a governing coalition with a majority of the 120-member parliament. Commentators warned that allowing the controversial ultra-nationalist Jewish legislator to become Israel's top diplomat was bound to prompt tensions with other countries. "Lieberman is perceived very badly internationally, and there is much concern about him," said Raviv Drucker, a political analyst for Israel's Channel 10 TV. Indeed, Mr Lieberman has been dubbed a "racist" and "fascist" by many in the left and centre of Israeli politics, in particular for his statements against Israel's Palestinian citizens, who account for about a fifth of the population. His party ran on the campaign slogan "No Loyalty - No Citizenship", which advocated stripping the citizenship of those who refuse to sign a loyalty oath to the country. The motto emerged in the aftermath of Israel's recent military onslaught in the Gaza Strip, which was overwhelmingly supported by Jewish citizens, and appeared aimed at penalising the many Israeli Palestinians who had protested against the operation. Yesterday, Israeli media reported that Mr Netanyahu has agreed to Mr Lieberman's demand to try to turn the campaign slogan into law. According to the reports, the new government would present for a parliamentary vote a law proposal that calls for seizing welfare and other benefits from any citizen charged with committing treason, espionage or terrorism against Israel. The reports did not specify what acts would lead to such charges. Mr Lieberman also supports transferring Israeli areas heavily populated by Palestinian citizens - in effect forcing them to give up their citizenship - to a future Palestinian state in exchange for Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, where he lives. He has called for Gaza to be "treated like Chechnya", has suggested Palestinian parliamentarians who have dealings with Hamas should be executed and has participated in a recently failed attempt to have their parties disqualified. Mr Lieberman's possible appointment as foreign minister may spur tension with Egypt, which marks the 30th anniversary of its peace treaty with Israel this month and whose ties with the Jewish state have often been frosty. During a parliamentary session in October, Mr Lieberman said the Egyptian president should "go to hell" after complaining that Mr Mubarak does not visit Israel even as the country's leaders repeatedly go to Cairo. When Israeli leaders apologised to Mr Mubarak for the remarks, Mr Lieberman attacked them for acting like a "battered wife" toward Egypt. However, in recent weeks Mr Lieberman has attempted to allay international concerns about him. He was quoted in several US newspapers as saying that he supports the creation of a Palestinian state and that he would be willing to evacuate his West Bank home for a peace pact. But he has also said that instead of continuing talks with the Palestinians now on a final settlement, he would opt for a bottom-up approach that first tries to improve their economy and security institutions in the West Bank. Furthermore, he opposes Israel giving up the Golan Heights to Syria, which has demanded the territory as part of a peace deal. Analysts said Mr Netanyahu is likely to agree to Mr Lieberman's demand for the foreign portfolio, especially after Israeli media reported that he had already ruled out giving him the defence job because of lack of experience. Also, the media have reported that giving Mr Lieberman the finance ministry could be problematic because the tax authority, part of the ministry, has been involved in an ongoing corruption investigation against him. Without Yisrael Beiteinu, Mr Netanyahu would have the support of only 50 parliamentary members, far short of the 61-member majority he needs in order to form a stable government. "If Lieberman insists on the foreign portfolio as an ultimatum, Netanyahu would have no choice but to give in," said Hanan Kristal, a veteran political commentator for Israel Radio. However, analysts said the appointment may create friction within the Likud and possibly destabilise the future government. Silvan Shalom, a prominent party figure and a former foreign minister, wants his old post back and is believed to have threatened to act against Mr Netanyahu if not appointed to it. vbekker@thenational.ae