Israeli populist's hardline message draws voters

ASHKELON, Israel Mon Feb 9, 2009 8:16am EST

Avigdor Lieberman, leader of hardline right-wing party Yisrael Beitenu, looks on during a debate ahead of Israel's general elections in the southern Israeli town of Beer Sheva February 7, 2009. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Avigdor Lieberman, leader of hardline right-wing party Yisrael Beitenu, looks on during a debate ahead of Israel's general elections in the southern Israeli town of Beer Sheva February 7, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Amir Cohen

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ASHKELON, Israel (Reuters) - Avigdor Lieberman does not appeal to the finer instincts of Israeli voters.

The right-wing party leader seems to be gaining support for Tuesday's election by campaigning on populist anxieties, such as the enemy within and how to expose him by challenging his loyalty.

He wants Israel's 20-percent Arab minority to prove they love the country, or leave it. He would re-divide Israel and the West Bank so some Arab towns would pass to the jurisdiction of a future Palestinian state, while Israel "annexes Jewish areas."

"Israel is under combined terror attack, from within and without the country," Lieberman says. "The internal terror threat is more dangerous than the external and we should understand that and react correspondingly."

The portly, bearded politician was born in the poor former Soviet republic of Moldova. He left for Israel in 1978, aged 20, and later served as an aide to former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, now his rival for hardline hearts and minds.

Some critics compare him to Jean-Marie Le Pen of France or Austria's late Joerg Haider, although he has neither Le Pen's crowd-pleasing charisma nor Haider's leather-jacketed swagger.

"People want a strong leader. And he's more to the right than Netanyahu," said Benny, an Israeli in his 50s who watched Lieberman campaign at Ashkelon's yacht marina this weekend.

"But he hasn't done anything remarkable except talk. His supporters are mostly young Russians," he said, using the common description for Israel's one million Jewish immigrants of former Soviet origin. "He's a passing episode, in my opinion."

Others, among them Benny's wife Varda, do not see Lieberman as a flash in the pan: "He's here to stay," she says.

BASE SWELLS

Political analysts say his once limited, Russian-speaking political base is swelling, helped by a widespread feeling that a Middle East peace deal is not even close until Hamas and other Islamist militant groups hunkered down in Gaza are rooted out.

Two rockets landed nearby on the day Lieberman visited Ashkelon in southern Israel. The city must remain on alert despite the 22-day Israeli onslaught that was meant to silence Hamas, and which killed an estimated 1,300 Palestinians in the process.

Lieberman says the ruling centrists of opponent Tzipi Livni cannot cure the Gaza problem or tackle the "internal" threat.

Polls put him in third place behind Netanyahu and Livni but ahead of Israel's once-dominant Labor party. If voters confirm that new lineup, liberals will be shocked. They see the party as a font of racial intolerance alien to their ideals of Israel.

Europe's xenophobic rightist leaders are condemned for racist rabble-rousing against blacks, Muslims and, subliminally, Jews. Lieberman is accused by Arab and left-wing opponents of the same fault, only he goes exclusively for the Arabs.

He does not appear to have political star quality. He exudes neither menace nor magnetism and he does not have the smiling ease of a natural campaigner. He left jacket and tie at home for his trip to the seaside town, but his jeans were neatly pressed.

He prides himself on saying the politically unsayable, on behalf of voters he says are deprived of a voice because their views are considered shameful in a pluralist democracy.

Television ads for his Yisrael Beiteinu (Our Home is Israel) party shows the names and faces of Arabs on the state payroll who make statements supporting Palestinian militancy.

The slogan is blunt: "No loyalty, no citizenship."

Could he herald a domestic witch hunt in Israel, comparable to that of Cold War U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy in the 1950s?

"The policies he preaches won't be implemented," wrote Haaretz newspaper columnist Israel Harel. "A broad coalition will vote down all his proposals." But to ignore the powerful issues he has exposed would be dangerous, he said.

"The ordinary citizen ... cannot understand why calling on the Arabs to declare their loyalty to the state that protects them ... is 'contrary to the democratic spirit'," Harel said.

BID TO JOIN BIG LEAGUES

Lieberman is no Mussolini, far less Stalin, as some wilder comparisons have it. At 50, he is only now bidding to join the big leagues of Israeli politics, and he may yet run on to one of the submerged reefs of Israel's fractured politics.

His non-religious party says Arabs would be treated no differently from ultra-Orthodox Jews, whose exemption from national service would be ended so that they, too, display loyalty in return for the benefits of citizenship.

Past pledges by others to make the ultra-Orthodox pull more weight in society have made little headway, since religious parties often are the ones to decide who forms a coalition.

Lieberman's ideas are, of course, opposed by Arab parties which hold 10 of 120 Knesset seats -- a symbol of racial inclusion that many in the Jewish state point to with pride.

Arab Israeli parliamentarian Ahmad Tibi attacked Lieberman last week, denouncing him as a "fascist" in front of TV cameras. Tibi said he encourages "fear in Israeli society exactly like every fascist party does all over Europe."

Lieberman, struggling for words, called Tibi a "terrorist."

Lieberman supporter Uzi Landau, a former security minister, says the party does not stoke fear but expresses popular will.

"People from left and right are coming to us simply because we are saying today, without apologizing, what people feel deep in their hearts: that we went a little too far with trying to live together with enemies within the state," he said.

The man Lieberman chose to put a diplomatic gloss on his down-to-earth message is Danny Ayalon, 53-year-old former Israeli ambassador to the United States.

"I could have joined a wishy-washy party," he told the Jerusalem Post. "But I have been politically correct enough."

(Editing by Alastair Macdonald and Andrew Dobbie)

(For blogs and links on Israeli politics and other Israeli and Palestinian news, go to blogs.reuters.com/axismundi)

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