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Israel's Lieberman: bouncer-turned-political firebrand

3 min

Jerusalem (AFP)

Avigdor Lieberman, who resigned as Israel's defence minister Wednesday, worked as a nightclub bouncer as a young man before embarking on a political career marked by anti-Arab tirades and strident populism.

The leader of the right-wing Yisrael Beitenu (Israel Is Our Home) quit over a Gaza ceasefire deal that he called "capitulating to terror."

He urged early elections, increasing the likelihood that they will be called ahead of November 2019, when they are due.

Lieberman, loathed by the Palestinians, is a security hardliner but also showed a practical side while in government and backed off from some of his most controversial comments after becoming defence minister in May 2016.

His dramatic return to government in 2016 came after he rebuffed advances by Netanyahu following the 2015 election.

The two men have been bitter rivals in the past, but the bearded and stocky Lieberman and the longtime prime minister showed an ability to work together while in government.

Lieberman has made a number of controversial statements over the years.

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 Mahmud Abbas a "diplomatic terrorist".

A year later in 2015, Lieberman said that Israeli Arabs disloyal to the country "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".

In 2016, Lieberman accused some Arab members of the Israeli parliament of being "representatives of terrorist organisations".

Before becoming defence minister, he also said he would give Hamas leader Ismail Haniya 48 hours to hand over two detained Israeli civilians and the bodies of soldiers killed in a 2014 war "or you're dead".

He even once described Netanyahu as a "liar, cheat and a crook."

In recent months, he has been seeking to have a bill approved that would make it easier to sentence Palestinian assailants to death.

- 'Soviet' Israeli -

Born in the ex-Soviet republic of Moldova, Lieberman, 60, emigrated to Israel in 1978, and 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 has labelled him "a man whose closest experience to a bullet whistling by his ear is a tennis ball flying by."

Lieberman started his career inside Likud and 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 Yisrael Beitenu, capturing the support of many of the more than one million Jews who emigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union, an electoral base that has expanded considerably since.

Over the years Lieberman has held several portfolios, including foreign minister from 2009 to 2012, then again from 2013 to 2015.

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 him 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.

A staunchly secular nationalist and father of three, Lieberman has suggested he supports civil marriages, currently banned in Israel. The ultra-Orthodox Jewish establishment oversees weddings in the country.

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

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

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