Avidgor Lieberman, kingmaker or king?

No one knows who got elected prime minister in Israel's election last week. The vote produced a virtual tie between Benjamin Netanyahu and Tzipi Livni. It's clear, though, who won the job of kingmaker: far rightist Avigdor Lieberman, whose party took third place in the proportional vote. By backing one candidate or the other, he can decide who will have enough support in parliament to form a ruling coalition.

And this is deeply ironic. Lieberman does not dream of being the power behind the throne. He dreams of the throne.

As soon as the votes were counted, both Livni and Netanyahu began courting Lieberman and his Israel Is Our Home party. Lieberman, a burly man with icy, pale eyes and a trimmed beard, is known for his antipathy toward Israel's Arab minority. His legislative program includes a bill that would condition citizenship on swearing loyalty to the country, its flag and its anthem. Since Israeli Arabs are unhappy with the anthem, which refers to the “Jewish soul,” and with the flag, which features a six-pointed Jewish star, the obvious goal is to make them refuse the oath and lose their right to vote.

Lieberman also talks of reforms that would create a more stable government. His party's proposal on the subject deserves a closer reading than it usually gets. It would allow the prime minister to appoint cabinet members without parliamentary approval. Under a state of emergency declared by parliament, the cabinet — or even the prime minister by himself — could enact emergency regulations that supercede laws. It's worth noting that Israel has officially been in a state of emergency since the day it became independent. Lieberman's proposal is a blueprint for autocratic rule.

Lieberman, 50, immigrated from Soviet Moldova in 1980. He was Netanyahu's closest ally within the right-wing Likud party before he decided he'd rather be Number 1 than Number 2, and formed his own party. Two years ago, I interviewed him in his Knesset office, and asked him what person or book had most influenced him. He mentioned Winston Churchill who, he says, was attacked in the years before World War II as being a "warmonger, embittered, extremist," the same insults Lieberman feels he's suffered.

But his deepest admiration and enthusiasm were reserved for Peter the Great. He had read "Peter the First," a Soviet-era novel about the autocrat "at least 300 times,” he told me. "Whenever I am tired or upset and I want something to calm me,” he said, "I open it on any page and start to read."

So I got an English copy of the novel. It was written by Alexey Tolstoy, a relative of the author of "War and Peace." The novel describes Peter, coming to power at the end of the 17th century, as the heir to a backward Asiatic Russia. He sees his calling as making his land modern and European, by any means necessary — "to drag the people out of their age-old swamp, open their eyes, prod them in the ribs. Beat them, lick them into shape, teach them.” When he faces a rebellion, “The prisons were filled and thousands of new corpses swayed … on the walls of Moscow.” The czar himself takes part in torturing the conspirators.

Alexey Tolstoy's granddaughter and biographer, I discovered, teaches Russian literature at Hebrew University — a sign of the vast intellectual migration of the post-Soviet years. Her grandfather wrote the book during Stalin's time, hinting to the dictator that "we want a progressive, Western country,” she said. Yet Stalin saw himself in the novel's depiction of the czar who brought progress through cruelty. It seemed to me that Stalin read the book well.

"One cannot understand modern Russia without reading this book," Lieberman told me. In the process, he told me how to understand his dreams, and it made me tremble.

Lieberman now wants wants one of the three top cabinet posts — defense, foreign affairs or finance. He also wants support for his legislative program. Both Livni and Netanyahu have been ready to bargain with him.

But for Lieberman, the current round is just a step on the path. Eventually, he expects to be not the kingmaker, but the king.

Gershom Gorenberg is the author of "The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977" (Times Books), and he blogs at southjerusalem.com. He originally interviewed Avigdor Lieberman for the Atlantic Monthly.


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