Avigdor Lieberman: hardliner set to be Israel's defence minister

Jerusalem (AFP) –


Avigdor Lieberman, who is set to become Israel's minister of defence, is a political veteran known for his anti-Arab tirades and strident populism.

The leader of the nationalist party Yisrael Beitenu (Israel is our home) is expected to replace Moshe Yaalon, who resigned on Friday saying extremists had taken over the country.

Yaalon said he no longer trusted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after the hawkish premier offered his post to Lieberman in a bid to expand the governing coalition's wafer-thin majority.

Lieberman is loathed by the Palestinans but as defence minister he will be the one responsible for implementing Israeli policies in the occupied territories.

His dramatic return to government will come after he rebuffed advances by Netanyahu following the 2015 election.

Lieberman lives in a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank and supports an exchange of territories that would give some Arab parts of Israel to the Palestinian Authority.

But in return he demands formal Israeli authority over settlements, an idea rejected by Netanyahu.

Over the years he has made a number of controversial statements.

In 2001, he advocated bombing the Aswan Dam in Egypt, accusing Israel's Arab neighbour of supporting a Palestinian uprising.

In 2014, he called Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas a "diplomatic terrorist".

A year later in 2015 Lieberman said that Israeli Arabs disloyal to Israel "deserve to have their heads chopped off with an axe".

That same year he called Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan an "anti-Semitic neighbourhood bully".

Earlier this year Lieberman accused some Arab members of the Israeli parliament of being the "representatives of terrorist organisations".

He also said that if he were defence minister, he would give Hamas's Gaza leader Ismail Haniya 48 hours to hand over detained Israeli civilians and the bodies of soldiers killed in the 2014 war "or you're dead".

Also this year, Lieberman, a former foreign minister, described Netanyahu as a "liar, cheat and a crook."

- "Soviet" Israeli -

Born in what is now Moldova, but was then the Soviet Union, Lieberman, 57, emigrated to Israel in 1978, and still retains a heavy accent when speaking Hebrew.

Upon arrival, the social scientist graduate worked for a time as a nightclub bouncer and also completed his military service.

But he was not a major figure in the army and Netanyahu's Likud party recently labelled him "a man whose closest experience to a bullet whistling by his ear is a tennis ball flying by."

He actually started his career inside Likud, the largest party on the nationalist right, under the mentorship of Netanyahu.

He rose through the ranks to become Netanyahu's chief of staff during the premier's first term from 1996 to 1999.

That year, he created the right-wing Yisrael Beitenu, capturing the support of many of the more than one million Jews who emigrated to Israeli from the former Soviet Union, an electoral base that has expanded considerably since.

Over the years Lieberman held several portfolios, including foreign minister under Netanyahu from 2009 to 2012.

As Israel's top diplomat, he was the bane of the European Union, accusing it of following a pro-Palestinian policy hostile to Jews -- often invoking the Holocaust.

These statements, often mixed with bits of humour, earned the stocky man many fans in Israel, while critics accused him of racism.

His image was tainted by a corruption scandal that saw him leave the government in 2012, but he was cleared of the charges and a year later he returned at the helm of the foreign ministry, a post he kept until 2015.

A staunchly secular nationalist, Lieberman has suggested he supports civil marriages, which are currently banned in religious Israel.

He says he is not a supporter of the idea of "Greater Israel" -- the Biblical boundaries that include the West Bank and which settlers advocate -- but lives in Nokdim, a Jewish settlement near Bethlehem.

While he considers peace with the Palestinians unrealistic, he has said he is willing to try.

He is married with three children.