[Dr. Aaron Lerner – IMRA: It should be noted that Mr. Olmert brought Lieberman into his government in the hope that the extra votes would prevent him from falling – not as a reflection of any change in attitudes.].
When Avigdor Lieberman, a populist Israeli politician frequently compared to Austria’s Jorg Haider and France’s Jean-Marie le Pen, proposed to bus thousands of Palestinians to the Dead Sea and drown them there, he was just a fringe member of government.
That was three years ago. But last week the controversial nationalist joined the coalition government led by Ehud Olmert in a much more senior role, as vice prime minister with special responsibility for Israel’s most pressing issue: the threat from Iran.
In his first interview since taking office – exclusively with The Sunday Telegraph – Mr Lieberman said that the best means of achieving peace in the Middle East would be for Jews and Arabs to live apart, including those Arabs who now live inside Israel.
Israel was on the “front line of a clash of civilisations between the free world and extremist Islam,” he said.
On Iran, he said: “Every week, the president of Iran declares his intention to destroy us.”
Mr Lieberman, 48, the leader of Yisrael Beitanu (Israel Our Home), who has previously urged Israel to bomb Teheran, said: “Iran is the base of an axis of evil which is a problem for all the world.”
Mr Lieberman, whose addition to the coalition as “strategic threat” minister prompted the resignation of a cabinet colleague, also said that Israel’s 1.25 million Arab minority was a problem” which required “separation” from the Jewish state. “We established Israel as a Jewish country,” he said. “I want to provide an Israel that is a Jewish, Zionist country. It’s about what kind of country we want to see in the future. Either it will be an [ethnically mixed] country like any other, or it will continue as a Jewish country.”
Ophir Pines-Paz, the former culture minister who resigned in protest, decried Mr Lieberman’s politics as “racist”, adding that the new vice prime-minister – a former bouncer who emigrated from the former Soviet republic of Moldova in 1978 – was himself “a strategic threat to Israel”.
Beyond that, however, protest has been muted. There have been no mass demonstrations. Few voters or politicians seem scandalised as they were in 2003.
Analysts say the smooth appointment of a man recently considered an extremist -rabble-rouser is a sign of political radicalisation in Israel.
“After the summer war in Lebanon, many Israelis have moved to the Right,” said Gideon Doron, professor of political science at Tel Aviv University. “They think security is bad and trust Paletinians and Arabs less. They don’t believe in the possibility of peace through negotiations, so Lieberman has become the centre of a new consensus.”
Mr Olmert has insisted that the addition of Israel Our Home to his coalition is tactical rather than plitical. It bolsters his majority in the Knesset to 78 out of 120 seats, allowing him a margin of security in a country known for its revolving-door governments.
But while Mr Olmert says Israel Our Home will not change government policy, it seems almost inconceivable that the prime minister’s main election promise of withdrawing tens of thousands of Jewish settlers from the West Bank will be implemented with Mr Lieberman – himself a settler – in the cabinet.
Mr Lieberman, for one, has other ideas. He has no intention of withdrawing Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Instead, he wants to keep them while, “in return”, redrawing Israel’s border to eject thousands of Israeli Arabs from the country.
“Minorities are the biggest problem in the world,” he said in his soft, Russian-accented English. Asked if Israeli citizens of Arab descent should be forced out through territorial redistribution, he said: “I think separation between two nations is the best solution. Cyprus is the best model. Before 1974, the Greeks and Turks lived together and there were frictions and bloodshed and terror.
“After 1974, they constituted all Turks on one part of the island, all Greeks on the other part of the island and there is stability and security.”
When it was pointed out that in Cyprus thousands were forcibly driven from their homes, he repied: “Yes, but the final result was better.”
Later, an aide to Mr Lieberman tried to flesh out his remarks. “Israeli Arabs don’t have to go,” he sid. “But if they stay they have to take an oath of allegiance to Israel as a Jewish Zionist state.”
Mr Lieberman does not explain how he plans to separate Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem, whose eastern half is home to several hundred thousand Palestinians but which Israel has annexed to form its “eternal and undivided capital”. The aide said: “He will not compromise on Jerusalem.”
Such hawkish, straightforward sentiments have made Mr Lieberman the most powerful new force in Israeli politics. Since he split with the Likud party and its leader, the former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to form his own party in 1999, he has in effect monopolised the votes of more than a million Russian immigrants. At elections earlier this year, Israel Our Home demolished Likud’s traditional grip on the Right to win 11 seats.
Mr Lieberman insists that the world must unite against “an axis of evil led by Iran. Iran is the biggest threat. It’s a problem for the whole world, but Israel really has a bad location. We are on the front line between the clash of civilisations between the free world and the extremist Islamic world.”
His use of the phrase “clash of civilisations” is another example of what Mr Doron calls Mr. Lieberman’s “popular straight-talking”. But there is one subject on which Mr Lieberman is uncharacteristically coy. When asked if he wants to lead the country one day, he smiled and said: “It’s too early for that.”