JERUSALEM—By all accounts, Avigdor Lieberman began his first full week as Israeli vice prime minister by getting the political wind knocked out of him—first in a British weekend broadsheet and then by his own boss.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s newest coalition partner—a West Bank settler—is arguably the most provocative Israeli politician since Rabbi Meir Kahane, and a headline in Britain’s Sunday Telegraph only burnished Mr. Lieberman’s fearsome credentials: “Jews and Arabs Can Never Live Together, Says Israel’s Vice PM.” Mr. Olmert swiftly distanced himself from Mr. Lieberman, saying that the opinions expressed in the article didn’t reflect the Israeli government’s position.
In an interview the next day in his Knesset chambers, the barrel-chested politician, a Moldovan immigrant whose party is called Israel Beiteinu (Israel Is Our Home), calmly laid out his diagnosis of the “demographic threat” of Israel’s growing Arab minority and its problematic loyalties to a future Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.
“There will be a homogenic Palestinian country without any Jews, and we will become a bi-national country with more than 20 percent non-Jewish population,” he said in his heavily Russian-accented English.
Mr. Lieberman is a practitioner of a brand of Jewish nationalism informed by the hard experiences of the former Soviet immigrants who form his base of support, and sharpened by the need to carve out a distinct niche for himself in Israel’s kaleidoscopic system of parties. This has meant that he often flies in the face of what much of the Western world has come to regard as an acceptable level of political correctness, giving palpitations to Israeli liberals and a certain level of satisfaction to critics of Israel, who have fairly exulted in the rise of someone who embodies the haughty expansionism they equate with Zionism as a whole.
“Mr. Lieberman is a militant, ideological rightist, and his project is similar to that of the neoconservatives in its explicitness and reassessment of values,” wrote the Israeli-Arab Knesset member Azmi Bishara in the Al-Ahram Weekly newspaper.
“He recognizes no rights for the Arabs, but for demographic and security reasons he accepts a Palestinian entity that could absorb the Palestinians.”
Mr. Lieberman’s mind-set is grounded in the notion that many of the worst problems of the last century have stemmed from unstable ethnic minorities. In his view, the situation is particularly acute in Israel, which lies at ground zero in what he termed the “clash of civilizations” between East and West.
“The linkage there will be between the Palestinians within Israel and the Palestinian country will bring some explosion,” Mr. Lieberman said. “And we can’t continue living in this situation. The best solution is exchanging from one side, exchanging population and territory.”
That means strengthening Israel’s Jewish majority by swapping sovereignty over Israeli Arab towns near the West Bank to the Palestinians in return for areas occupied by Jewish settlers in the West Bank. It also requires a redivision of Jerusalem to cede about 125,000 Palestinian residents to a Palestinian state.
As a corollary to the population swap, Mr. Lieberman has proposed that Israeli citizens be required to swear allegiance to the country’s flag and national anthem—two symbols with no intrinsic value for Israeli Arabs—or lose their voting rights. Necessary measures, he says.
“We need to save the Jewish country. It’s like a surgical operation—it’s a strong measure, but you can achieve a stable solution,” said Mr. Lieberman, who has bulging eyes and the stocky build of a rugby player. “We want to keep our country and our culture a Jewish, Zionist democratic country. There is no contradiction between all these definitions.”
The proposals are tailor-made to appeal to right-leaning Israelis who see the Arab minority as a potential fifth column, helping Mr. Lieberman to win nearly 10 percent of the seats in the Knesset, as well as the opprobrium of the Israeli left. His inclusion in the government on Oct. 30 stirred a debate that gets to the heart of questions about the character of Israel’s democracy and the rights of minorities in the country.
“Nothing he says is worthy of comment. It’s a racist proposal. It injures the essence of the democratic in the country and injures the entire concept of equality between civilians,” said Nadia Hilu, an Arab member of Knesset from the Labor Party.
“Mr. Lieberman is not a problem of the Arabs—he is a problem of the state of Israel, and a problem for democracy. A democratic state must condemn statements and comments of this type.”
In return for bolstering a governing coalition hobbled by the disastrous recent incursion into Lebanon, Mr. Lieberman got a ministerial post that is supposed to synthesize policy toward Iran, but in practice is likely to wield little authority.
Still, critics slammed him as undemocratic and worried about the possible impact of Mr. Lieberman’s offensive remarks on Israel’s standing abroad.
At the annual memorial for former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s left-wing novelist David Grossman described Mr. Lieberman as a “habitual pyromaniac” and called the appointment “a harsh blow to democracy.” The New York Times editorial page has called him an obstacle to peace, while a Labor minister who resigned, Ophir Pines-Paz, said that Mr. Lieberman’s party smacked of racism.
Mr. Lieberman has already met with the European Union envoy to Israel and has been invited to appear at the Brookings Institution. On the Iranian nuclear threat, he is careful to hew to the government line about following the lead of the U.S. rather than urging a unilateral Israeli attack, but he still trots out comparisons between Iran and Nazi Germany.
“The situation right now is like before World War II. Everyone is trying to make agreements like the Munich agreement and the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement,” he said. The problem is that “China has one position, Russia has a second position, and the U.S. has a third position. The result will be the same as the Second World War.”
Mr. Lieberman, 48, immigrated to Israel in the 1978, became involved in politics and eventually rose to become the chief of staff of then–Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Breaking away from Likud, he founded the Israel Beiteinu party in 1999. Initially a party of Russian immigrants, Mr. Lieberman’s success in the last election indicates that he has moved beyond his native-son community. The goal, he says, is for Israel Beiteinu to become a leading nonsectarian political party—the type that runs candidates for prime minister.
While whisking me through the corridors of the Knesset, Mr. Lieberman’s aide pitched me on the new minister’s political non-conformism: “He’s both far-right and far-left.”
It’s a fair characterization, to a point: Territorial compromise and separation—in recognition of the ramifications of Jewish-Arab demographic trends—were first raised by peaceniks. And at the Camp David peace talks of 2000—which now seem like a tragically short-lived high point in Israeli-Palestinian relations—negotiators were discussing the idea of a comprehensive land swap.
But Mr. Lieberman remains a dedicated critic of the Oslo accords and of the P.L.O. leaders who once negotiated with Israel. He blames his pariah image—comparisons are often made with France’s far-rightist Jean Marie Le Pen and Austria’s Jörg Haider—on a “left-wing propaganda” machine.
Mr. Lieberman’s swap proposal—he is careful to deny any support for a forced transfer—could affect about 250,000 Israeli Arabs living near the northern West Bank and another 250,000 Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, according to a Hebrew University demographic expert.
The difference between a swap and a transfer is that in a swap, residents stay put and sovereignty changes, while transfers involve moving people. The historical precedents mentioned by Mr. Lieberman—Cyprus, Greece and Turkey, and the former Yugoslavia—all involved population transfers.
“There needs to be a lot of thought to the social implications and political implications and the preservation of civil rights, which I haven’t seen developed yet,” said Sergio Della Pergola, a professor of population studies at Hebrew University.
It’s not at all clear that Mr. Lieberman has grappled with those inconvenient details. When pressed in the interview to provide details about the hypothetical population plan, Mr. Lieberman shifted uncomfortably. The Israel Beiteinu platform calls for the land swap to be mutually agreed upon between Israelis and Palestinians. But Mr. Lieberman can’t say just who would be his partner. Calling President Mahmoud Abbas a “professional liar” who has never made good on his promises, he admits that he sees no Palestinian interlocutor to do business with, and suggests instead that Israel would have to coordinate its Palestinian policy with Jordan.
Just what Mr. Lieberman’s ideal ethnic ratio between Jews and Arabs in Israel would be is also vague. That’s because, according to Mr. Lieberman, the bottom line is not demographic at all. “It’s an issue of loyalty,” he said.