Is Avigdor Lieberman’s pencil-bearded, steely-grey-eyed visage Israel’s new face of moderation? Is the ex-Soviet immigrant leader with prime ministerial pretensions the next chain in Zionism’s long story of pragmatism triumphing — sometimes — over destructive dogmatism.
Stranger metamorphoses have happened. And the evidence points to the enigmatic Yvet (his Russian name, by which everyone still calls him) changing his aggressive, Arab-hating image to a much more statesmanlike profile.
The most dramatic harbinger of the new Lieberman appeared on Wednesday night of last week in a joint press conference by Foreign Minister Lieberman, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak, ending eight days of fire and devastation across the Gaza border.
All three Israeli leaders praised and thanked Egypt’s Islamist president, Muhammad Morsi, for his role in brokering the cease-fire with Hamas. None did so more fulsomely than Mr Lieberman. All three explained why Israel had decided to hold back from a ground invasion of Gaza. Lieberman spoke with no less conviction than the others.
This was the same man who, four years ago, blasted the Olmert government for failing to conquer the entire Gaza Strip in Operation Cast Lead and failing to crush, by force of arms, the regime of the militant Islamic Hamas. Then, he was advocating brazen contempt for the weight of world opinion. Now, he made a point of praising diplomatic efforts by the US and the European powers to end the violence.
Mr Lieberman has been an uninhibited hardliner throughout his political career. He has promoted blatantly anti-Arab legislation. He has disparaged Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority. He outraged Israeli Jews and Arabs alike by urging that Israel “swap” Arab-populated parts of the state for territory on the West Bank settled by Jews.
But that last position, however impolitic and impractical, betrayed a pragmatic mind-set unfettered by the Greater Israel messianism of the settlers and their political hinterland. It reflected the broad sentiment of the million-plus ex-Soviet immigrant constituency — hardline, but not irrational.
As foreign minister for the past four years, Mr Lieberman has had an intense schooling in the exigencies buffeting the Jewish state and determining its vital interests. He doubtless discerned that those interests do not always coincide with the kind of divisive bombast that has served his rise to political prominence thus far.
Mr Lieberman recently merged his Yisrael Beitenu party with the Likud, with the transparent purpose of succeeding Mr Netanyahu as leader of “Likud Beitenu” and then as prime minister.
Israeli politics provide little time for honeymoons. The first test of this marriage of interests will be Mr Lieberman’s choice of Knesset candidates in the combined list. (Yisrael Beitenu is as much an autocracy as Shas: Yvet, like Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, is the sole decider.)
Likud members, voting in their party primary on Monday, favoured ultra-nationalists, turfing out such relative moderates as Dan Meridor and Benny Begin. Mr Netanyahu’s embarrassment was compounded by his loss, earlier the same day, of Ehud Barak as minister of defence. Mr Barak, whose Independence Party was flagging in polls, announced he was quitting public life.
All eyes are now on Mr Lieberman to see if he will shore up Likud-Beitenu’s centrist credentials by appointing moderate candidates to “balance” the Likud hardliners.