Political hawk stirs passions ahead of Israeli election

Polls show upstart's party in third place

Supporters of Avigdor Lieberman rallied during a campaign event yesterday in Haifa. Lieberman's party, Yisrael Beitenu, has scored the biggest gains in the campaign's final week. Supporters of Avigdor Lieberman rallied during a campaign event yesterday in Haifa. Lieberman's party, Yisrael Beitenu, has scored the biggest gains in the campaign's final week. (Tara Todras-Whitehill/Associated Press)
By Richard Boudreaux
Los Angeles Times / February 9, 2009
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KIRYAT MOTZKIN, Israel - Portraits of two Israeli-Arab politicians, defaced by red Hebrew letters reading, "Shame and Disgrace!" flashed on a giant video screen.

Jeering erupted in the hall, packed for a tough-talking candidate whose bid to lead Israel is propelled by unease about its biggest minority.

Avigdor Lieberman's attacks on Arabs have shaken up the race for Parliament and prime minister. He is drawing large, boisterous crowds of voters who delight in chanting his slogan - "Without loyalty, there is no citizenship" - and back his proposal for a mandatory loyalty oath to the Jewish state.

His party, Yisrael Beitenu, or "Israel Is Our Home," has scored the biggest gains in the final week of the campaign and moved into third place, according to polls published Friday.

Once a marginal provocateur on the extreme right, Lieberman could well be the pivotal player as Israel forms a multiparty governing coalition after tomorrow's election.

The outcome of the race will weigh on the Obama administration's options for pursuing Middle East peace. Because neither of the leading candidates could easily form a majority coalition without Lieberman, the next government probably will be more hawkish than the current one.

Lieberman's momentum, fueled by Israel's recent offensive in the Gaza Strip, has tightened the contest.

It has drained support from front-runner Benjamin Netanyahu, head of the conservative opposition Likud party, narrowing his lead over Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni of the centrist Kadima party and making the race much closer than expected.

In an apparent effort to strengthen his right-wing credentials after the surge by Lieberman's party, Netanyahu declared yesterday that he would not give up the strategic Golan Heights for peace with Syria.

Livni has not ruled out returning the Golan Heights. The third candidate for prime minister, Defense Minister Ehud Barak of Labor, offered the Syrians that deal when he headed the government in 2000.

The likelihood that Israel's next government will be much more hawkish than the current coalition is adding urgency to reach agreement on a long-term cease-fire for the Gaza Strip. Negotiations are continuing in Cairo. Leaders of both Israel and Hamas, which rules Gaza, want to reach agreement before the elections.

Yesterday, two rockets fired by Palestinian militants struck southern Israel, the Israeli military said. The attack violates the informal cease-fire that was declared after Israel's offensive ended.

Lieberman helped Netanyahu become prime minister in 1996 and served as his chief of staff. When the government collapsed in 1999, he formed Yisrael Beitenu, won a seat in Parliament and has twice held Cabinet posts. His party's presence in Parliament grew from four seats in 1999 to 11 in the 2006 election.

Alarmed by Lieberman's rise, many rivals denounce his rhetoric as racist and inflammatory.

"This is a person who brings out the darkest urges of part of the Israeli public," said Shelly Yachimovich, a lawmaker from the left-leaning Labor Party. "His slogan endangers democracy. He is the moral red line we must not cross."

Yet the two leading candidates, wary of his clout, have refrained from criticizing him.

The Moldavan immigrant appears to be the chief beneficiary of nationalist passions aroused by the assault on Hamas militants. Israelis are deeply skeptical about peace prospects.

Netanyahu may have scored with voters by criticizing the decision by Livni and other senior ministers to halt the offensive in January with Hamas still in control of Gaza. But Lieberman struck a deeper chord of Jewish discontent by railing against Arab citizens who marched with Hamas banners during antiwar demonstrations in their towns in Israel.

He also called for outlawing Arab parties whose leaders had condemned the Israeli offensive.

About one-fifth of Israel's 7 million citizens are Arabs, and a dozen serve in the 120-seat Parliament. Many of their leaders want to define Israel as a binational state, with more control by Arabs over public institutions and their own communities, rather than as a Jewish state.

Lieberman condemns such advocacy as treasonous.

Lieberman has long proposed swapping areas of Israel that are heavily populated by Arab citizens for parts of the West Bank populated by Jewish settlers.

His recent initiative, the theme of his campaign, calls for amending the citizenship law. It would require all citizens to sign an oath of loyalty to Israel as a Jewish state; accept its symbols, flag, and anthem, and commit to serving in a military or alternative service.

Anyone refusing to sign would lose citizenship rights, including the right to vote and to run for public office, but could remain in Israel on residence permits.

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