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Far-right Israeli party could play the spoiler

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 the tough-talking candidate whose bid to lead Israel is propelled by unease about its Arab minority.

Avigdor Lieberman’s attacks on Arabs have shaken up the race for parliament and prime minister. He is drawing large, boisterous crowds that delight in chanting his slogan -- “Without loyalty, there is no citizenship” -- and back his proposal for a mandatory loyalty oath to the Jewish state.

Fueled by the political fallout from Israel’s recent offensive in the Gaza Strip, Lieberman has scored the biggest gains in the final week of the campaign. Polls published Friday show that his party, Israel Is Our Home, has climbed into third place. That means Lieberman, once a marginal provocateur on the extreme right, could well be the pivotal player as Israel forms a multiparty governing coalition after Tuesday’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 is likely to be more hawkish than the current one.

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Lieberman’s momentum 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 too close to call.

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 Yacimovich, 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.

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The Moldovan immigrant, who once served as Netanyahu’s chief of staff, appears to be the main beneficiary of nationalist passions aroused by the assault on Hamas militants after years of rocket fire from Gaza. Israelis’ deep skepticism over peace prospects has only made his message sound more mainstream.

Netanyahu may have scored with voters by criticizing the decision by Livni and other senior ministers to halt the offensive last month with Hamas still in control of the Palestinian territory.

But Lieberman struck a deeper chord of Jewish discontent by railing against Arab citizens who marched with Hamas banners during antiwar demonstrations in Israel.

He also called for outlawing Arab parties whose leaders -- including the mayor and the member of parliament demonized in the video at the rally -- 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.

“We are under a coordinated attack of terror from within and from without,” he declared Thursday night, drawing thunderous applause at the rally in this suburb of Haifa. “And the threats from within are even more dangerous.”

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

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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 themselves to serving in the military or doing 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 a residence permit.

“The dividing line does not run between Jew and Arab,” Lieberman said at the rally, rejecting charges of racism. “The dividing line is between those who support terror and those who oppose it.

“In American schools, children pledge allegiance to flag and country every single morning,” he added. “What’s so bad about wanting to adopt the same norms?”

The 50-year-old firebrand, who once worked as a bar bouncer, has made a political career by cultivating a strongman image that appeals to many of his fellow immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who number about 1 million.

He has called for the execution of Arab lawmakers who have met with Hamas’ leaders, and for the bombing of Palestinian gasoline stations, banks and commercial centers.

After landing in Israel in 1978, Lieberman joined the Likud Party while studying at Hebrew University. According to the newspaper Haaretz, the new immigrant also took a membership card from the far-right Kach party, which had been outlawed for its racist platform. Lieberman’s campaign says the report is false.

Lieberman helped Netanyahu become prime minister in 1996, and when the government collapsed in 1999, he formed Israel Is Our Home, won a seat in parliament and has twice held Cabinet posts.

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His party’s presence in parliament grew from four seats in 1999 to 11 in the 2006 election.

Lieberman’s loyalty initiative has extended his appeal beyond the Russian-speaking community, with Friday’s polls indicating his party will win an additional six to eight seats.

The loyalty slogan is plastered on buses and billboards nationwide, and Lieberman’s campaign says it has collected more than 20,000 signatures backing the proposed citizenship amendment. A poll published in the newspaper Maariv said 69% of voting-age Israeli Jews supported it.

Thursday’s rally drew a working-class crowd of Russian speakers and native Israelis from northern Israel, a region dotted with Arab towns and villages.

Rami Cohen, 55, who voted for Kadima last time, said he had come undecided and left the rally leaning toward Lieberman. He said he was worried by signs of unrest in Arab communities in the north.

“The time has come for a heavy hand against people posing threats from within,” he said. “Only when we take care of these problems will we be able to live in a true state of peace.”

Israeli Arab leaders reject Lieberman’s ideas as undemocratic.

“No one can demand that I join the army and fight against my Palestinian brothers,” said Abbas Zakour, an Arab lawmaker. “No one can dictate to nearly a million and a half Arabs to sing the anthem. Certainly no one who came from Russia 20 years ago can tell me what to do in my ancestors’ land.”

Ahmed Tibi, another Arab in parliament, has called on the international community to boycott Israel if Lieberman rises to power, as it did Austria when far-right leader Jorg Haider joined that country’s government.

But Netanyahu is desperately courting Lieberman, along with his constituency.

About 1,500 Russian-speaking voters bused from all over Israel to the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds on Wednesday heard the front-runner promise “an important ministry” for Lieberman in a Netanyahu Cabinet.

“If you vote for another party, Likud will become weaker,” Netanyahu told them. “Kadima and other parties on the left will benefit, and this is not what you want.”

Livni, while lamenting “the trend for a party whose entire slate is based on hate,” has avoided criticizing Lieberman, knowing that the shift of voters from Likud to his party could help her win.

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boudreaux@latimes.com


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