Avigdor Liberman: An outspoken firebrand turned pragmatic defense chief

Despite his controversial outbursts against Palestinians and Arab Israelis, outgoing defense minister showed a practical approach when in government

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman announces his resignation following a ceasefire with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, during a press conference in the Knesset on November 14, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman announces his resignation following a ceasefire with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, during a press conference in the Knesset on November 14, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

Avigdor Liberman, who resigned as defense minister Wednesday, has a political career marked by anti-Arab tirades and strident populism.

The leader of the right-wing Yisrael Beytenu (Israel Is Our Home) quit over a Gaza ceasefire deal that he called “capitulating to terror.”

As he announced his resignation, he urged early elections, increasing the likelihood that they will be called ahead of November 2019, when they are due.

Liberman, loathed by the Palestinians, is a security hardliner but also showed a practical side while in government and backed off from some of his most controversial comments after becoming defense minister in May 2016.

His dramatic return to government in 2016 came after he rebuffed advances by Netanyahu following the 2015 election.

The two men have been bitter rivals in the past, but the bearded and stocky Liberman and the longtime prime minister showed an ability to work together while in government.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman in the Knesset, on October 24, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

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

In 2001, he advocated bombing the Aswan Dam in Egypt, accusing Israel’s Arab neighbor of supporting a Palestinian uprising.

In 2014, he called Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas a “diplomatic terrorist.”

A year later in 2015, Liberman said that Arab Israelis disloyal to the country “deserve to have their heads chopped off with an ax.”

That same year he called Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan an “anti-Semitic neighborhood bully.”

In 2016, Liberman accused some Arab members of the Israeli parliament of being “representatives of terrorist organizations.”

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

He even once described Netanyahu as a “liar, cheat and a crook.”

In recent months, he has been seeking to have a bill approved that would make it easier to sentence Palestinian assailants to death.

‘Soviet’ Israeli

Born in the ex-Soviet republic of Moldova, Liberman, 60, emigrated to Israel in 1978.

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

But he was not a major figure in the army and Netanyahu’s Likud party has labeled him “a man whose closest experience to a bullet whistling by his ear is a tennis ball flying by.”

Leader of the Yisrael Beitenu party Avigdor Liberman, right, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at the time in the opposition, December 25, 1996. (Flash90)

Liberman started his career inside Likud and rose through the ranks to become Netanyahu’s chief of staff during the premier’s first term from 1996 to 1999.

That year, he created Yisrael Beytenu, 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 Liberman 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 — often invoking the Holocaust. These statements, often mixed with bits of humor, earned him many fans in Israel, while critics accused him of racism.

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

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman seen during a visit to the Israeli-Gaza border, on July 5, 2016. (Ariel Hermoni/Ministry of Defense)

A staunchly secular nationalist and father of three, Liberman has suggested he supports civil marriages, currently banned in Israel. The ultra-Orthodox Jewish establishment oversees weddings in the country.

He says he is not a supporter of the idea of “Greater Israel” — the biblical boundaries that include the West Bank and which settlers advocate — but he lives in Nokdim, a Jewish settlement near Bethlehem.

While he considers peace with the Palestinians unrealistic, he has said he is willing to try and has advocated an agreement which would see some Arab Israeli towns become part of a future Palestinian state in return for Israel retaining some West Bank settlement territory.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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