Avigdor Liberman dropped the A-bomb on Thursday. Israel’s hard-line, unabashedly nationalistic, settlement-residing foreign minister joined the camp of those warning that an Israeli annexation of the West Bank would lead to an apartheid state.

“What [Naftali] Bennett and his Jewish Home party are proposing is a classical bi-national state,” Liberman declared of his Orthodox-nationalist rivals during a press conference in Tel Aviv, and he didn’t mean it as a compliment. “They need to decide if they’re talking about a bi-national state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean such as the president [Reuven Rivlin] speaks about, or whether they’re talking about an apartheid state.”

Applying sovereignty over the West Bank without granting the right to vote to everyone living there, Liberman warned Thursday, would immediately provide fodder to Israel’s critics across the globe. (In Rivlin’s conception, all residents of an expanded Israel would be given equal citizenship, drastically reducing its Jewish majority. Many in Bennett’s far-right party advocate annexing the entire West Bank, home to some 2.75 million Palestinians according to the IDF, though party chairman Bennett himself currently calls only for the annexation of Area C, covering some 60% of the West Bank where about 350,000 Jews and 80,000 Palestinians reside.)

Fighting for his political life in the midst of a major corruption scandal engulfing his Yisrael Beytenu party, and seeing masses of nationalist voters flocking to the Jewish Home ahead of the March 17 general elections, Liberman is seeking to distinguish his diplomatic platform from those of rival right-wing parties, and thus has chosen to join the ranks of Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni and other Israeli top politicos past and present who have invoked the apartheid concern.

Other right-wing leaders have warned of a bi-national state if Israel failed to separate from the Palestinians — most notably Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — but have stayed far away from the A-word, which traditionally has been found in the verbal toolbox of avowed left-wingers.

All hell broke loose last April when US Secretary of State John Kerry dared to utter “apartheid” in describing what Israel’s future could look like if no peace deal is achieved. After ferocious criticism in Israel and America, Kerry acknowledged that it’s a “word best left out of the debate here at home,” but clarified that in the long term, a bi-national state “cannot be the democratic Jewish state that Israel deserves or the prosperous state with full rights that the Palestinian people deserve.”

He wasn’t the only one to have invoked the “specter of apartheid to underscore the dangers of a unitary state for the future,” Kerry said, noting that Livni, Olmert and former prime minister Ehud Barak have done it, too. Now Liberman can be added to that list.

Avigdor Liberman, left, and John Kerry meeting in Washington on Wednesday, September 18, 2014. photo credit: Jordan Silverman/Foreign Ministry)

Avigdor Liberman, left, and John Kerry meeting in Washington on September 18, 2014 (photo credit: Jordan Silverman/Foreign Ministry)

Hearing Liberman accuse fellow nationalists of risking turning Israel into an apartheid state was also reminiscent of a Likud faction meeting in May 2003, during which then-prime minister Ariel Sharon for the first time lamented Israel’s “occupation” of the Palestinians. One doesn’t need to love the word, Sharon said, to the horror of the Likud MKs present, “but what’s happening is an occupation. Holding three and a half million Palestinians [in the West Bank and Gaza] under occupation in my opinion is a terrible thing. It can’t go on indefinitely.”

Liberman, who lives in the West Bank settlement of Nokdim, belongs to those who don’t like the term “occupation” — he left Sharon’s coalition over the 2005 Disengagement from Gaza — but he has long called for a separation between Jews and Arabs.

According to Yisrael Beytenu’s old-new program, presented by Liberman on Thursday, Israel needs to annex major settlement blocs in the West Bank and in turn cede areas of sovereign Israeli territory predominantly inhabited by Arab citizens to a future Palestine state. The plan is at the center of the party’s electoral platform, as evidenced by its new campaign slogan: “Ariel to Israel, Umm el-Fahm to Palestine.” Ariel is a Jewish city in the West Bank; Umm el-Fahm is an Arab city in the area of Israel known as the “triangle.”

Liberman’s resorting to the A-word to denigrate the Jewish Home shows how desperately he wishes to woo right-wing voters by presenting an equally nationalist but ostensibly more realistic agenda. Presenting his controversial election campaign Thursday, Liberman berated not only Bennett’s “apartheid” scheme, but also the “stagnation” that, according to his view, Netanyahu’s Likud party represents.

“Yisrael Beytenu are the only ones who represent a pragmatic nationalist camp,” Liberman claimed. “No stagnation, no status quo, no bi-national state, but Israel as a Jewish state with maximum territory and maximum population loyal to the values of the state, the Declaration of Independence and the national anthem.”

Liberman’s words underline a fact that some pundits have played down recently: the foreign minister has emphatically not metamorphosed into a left-winger. Despite reports galore about the new “moderate Liberman,” his positions on the Palestinians and on the peace process remain hard-line.

If the new government were to be formed by the center-left “Zionist Camp” led by Livni and Yitzhak Herzog and based on the merged Labor-Hatnua platform of seeking an accord with the Palestinian Authority, he would not be part of the coalition, he clarified, calling such a policy “anachronistic.” Everything Livni and Herzog have to offer they already proposed in previous rounds of peace talks in Camp David and Annapolis, without success, Liberman said.

Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni hold a joint press conference in Tel Aviv on December 10, 2014, announcing a unity deal. (Flash90)

Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni hold a joint press conference in Tel Aviv on December 10, 2014, announcing a unity deal. (Flash90)

He would only join them in a government, he elaborated, if they were to abandon their ideas on the peace process in favor of his. “What will the next government go for? If it’ll follow the same positions of Tzipi Livni and Bujie Herzog, I have nothing to look for there,” he declared. If the new coalition were to strive to renew peace negotiations with PA President Mahmoud Abbas, Yisrael Beytenu would not be a part of it, he promised. “We wasted enough time on Abu Mazen,” he said, using Abbas’s nom de guerre. “We won’t be there. That needs to be clear.”

Listening closely to Liberman Thursday, nonetheless, he didn’t completely rule out joining any coalition — neither with the ostensibly apartheid-ushering Bennett nor with the purportedly anachronistic Herzog-Livni. Sitting in opposition would not be the end of the world, he said, but it was clear to all that he’d definitely prefer to remain in government.

The question is how much coalition-building leverage the embattled party leader will have on the morning after the March 17 elections. Recent polls, after all, show Yisrael Beytenu slipping from its current 18 seats to less than half that number.