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Israel’s new defense minister represents a milestone for Russian-speaking emigres

Newly appointed Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman waves during a Knesset, or parliament, session in which he was sworn in on May 30, 2016, in Jerusalem.
(Menahem Kahana / AFP/Getty Images)

When Avigdor Lieberman was picked by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to become defense minister, he declared he had smashed a glass ceiling on behalf of the nation’s Russian-speaking immigrant community.

The Israeli satire TV program “Eretz Nehederet” had a slightly different take, portraying Lieberman decked out in a medal-filled Red Army uniform and quipping in a thick accent, “These are just my pajamas.’’

The 57-year-old ultranationalist former foreign minister, who has made a career of blunt and provocative remarks toward Israel’s Arab neighbors and citizens, this week became the first immigrant from the former Soviet Union to be put in charge of the military -- a longtime symbol of the Israeli establishment and national consensus.

Lieberman’s appointment as defense minister resulted from a Cabinet shake-up in which Netanyahu sacked former army chief of staff Moshe Yaalon to make way for Lieberman’s immigrant-based party and broaden Israel’s right-wing religious governing coalition.

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Despite multiple episodes of alliance and rivalry with Netanyahu, the Moldovan-born Lieberman reached the key position in Israeli politics and is considered by some observers to be a contender for prime minister someday.

Russian Israeli World War II veterans who served as Russian soldiers from the Soviet Union take part in a Victory in Europe Day parade in Jerusalem on May 8, 2016.
Russian Israeli World War II veterans who served as Russian soldiers from the Soviet Union take part in a Victory in Europe Day parade in Jerusalem on May 8, 2016.
(Abir Sultan / European Pressphoto Agency )

The unexpected shift has prompted many Russian-speaking Israelis to welcome the appointment as a milestone for the group of about 1 million that still feels the sting of discrimination and marginalization two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 unleashed a wave of migration to Israel.

“It’s true he broke a glass ceiling,” said Victor Zlochevsky, 69, who left Vilnius, Lithuania, in 1990 for Israel and settled in Ashdod, a city with a large concentration of emigres. “There was a big immigration wave in the 1990s, but there aren’t enough Russians in the government. We only have a couple.”

Lieberman’s lack of military experience, reputed ties to Russian oligarchs and his accusations that leaders of the country’s Arab minority are disloyal have stirred up a wave of rejection that many Russian emigres say has aggravated years of tension with native-born Israelis.

“When Israelis see Lieberman speaking in his slow and menacing baritone and a montage showing his alleged ties to [Uzbek Israeli metals magnate] Michael Chernoy, then a lot of viewers will think this is a local version of [the fictional television mob family] the Sopranos,’’ said Dimi Reider, a London-based fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, who emigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union. “But Russians think, ‘Oh God, they’re trying to take him down again as a mobster.’ ’’

In recent months, Lieberman has supported giving leaders of the militant group Hamas a 48-hour assassination ultimatum if they continued to hold the remains of Israeli soldiers killed two years ago during fighting in the Gaza Strip; when he was foreign minister, he accused Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of promoting “diplomatic terrorism” and advocated that Israel draw closer to Russia to reduce its dependency on the U.S.

The appointment was criticized by Benny Begin, the son of former Prime Minister Menachem Begin, as “delusional” and irresponsible. The liberal Haaretz newspaper wrote in an editorial that Lieberman, who will oversee Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank, will get an “almost unlimited potential to foment crises and to jeopardize the national interest.”

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Roni Daniel, a veteran military television commentator on the country’s most popular news show, said the appointment made him want his kids to leave the country.

In Ashdod, which has a neighborhood where shops have Russian signs and retired emigres play chess and dominoes at park tables, Meir Zaharov complained the country’s “leftist media” consider immigrants “second class.”

“If they don’t fight in the army, you’re considered less Israeli,” Zaharov said.

Andrey Kozhinov, a former political commentator at Israel’s Russian-language television channel, complained that the appointment has spurred pejorative comments from some native-born Israelis.

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“I’m 20 years here -- I’ve lived here longer than in Russia -- and suddenly with this appointment, I’m being tagged as Russian,’’ he said. “The whole story of the sabras [native-born Israelis] and Russians has exploded anew.”

In recent days, Lieberman -- who resides in a West Bank Jewish settlement -- has made a series of mollifying remarks, reiterating his support for a Palestinian state, complementing Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi and saying Israel should avoid “wars of choice.”

Lieberman’s rise, which started in the ruling Likud Party, highlights how the influx of former Soviet immigrants bolstered security hawks on the Israeli right.

After serving as the director of the prime minister’s office when Netanyahu was first elected in the 1990s, Lieberman struck out to form his own smaller right-wing party, Yisrael Beiteinu, or Israel Is Our Home. Lieberman, a supporter of ceding Israeli Arab towns in return for Jewish settlements, had his most successful election performance in 2009 when he ran on a slogan that promised “no loyalty, no citizenship’’ for the Arab minority.

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He has also championed a pro-immigrant agenda to give people from the former Soviet Union pension benefits forfeited after they moved to Israel, and supported instituting civil marriage to enable Russian speakers – many of whom aren’t considered Jewish by Israel’s Orthodox rabbis – to avoid the country’s religious bureaucracy.

But many Russian-speaking Israelis have said Lieberman’s support is much less robust among emigres in their 20s and 30s who came to Israel as children and are more integrated into the mainstream.

His lack of military experience and controversial standing among the Israeli left wing are likely to leave him with little margin for error, said Arik Elman, a public relations consultant and former Russian-language journalist.

“This is a post that will make him or break him,” Elman said.

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Mitnick is a special correspondent.


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