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Sunday Jan. 16, 2011 5:43 PM (EST+7)
"Israel's McCarthy": On the rise or on the ropes?

Read more: Avigdor Lieberman, Joe McCarthy, human rights, Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, left wing, activists

JERUSALEM, Jan 16 (Douglas Hamilton/Reuters) - Some leaders would have fired him months ago for insubordination. But Avigdor Lieberman, denounced by critics as the Jewish Joe McCarthy, just wraps himself tighter in the flag.

Capping a week in which he again clashed with his boss and coalition partner Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the abrasive scourge of bleeding heart peaceniks on Friday explained his lengthening enemies list.

What we have here is a combined effort ... to destroy the only democracy in the Middle East ... to distort reality, to deter and to demonise Israel... he told the daily Yedioth Aharonoth, listing various non-governmental organisations and human rights groups active in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

They are always against us. Can it never be that justice is on our side, just once? We are always to blame in the view of these organisations, 52-year-old Lieberman said.

Thousands of left-wing and human rights activists rallied in Tel Aviv on Saturday condemning parliament's approval of Lieberman's demand for a commission of inquiry to probe the funding sources of leftist groups, Israeli media reported.

The rally was in support of human rights and democracy, and against racism, McCarthyism and future destruction, said Hagai Elad of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, likening Lieberman to the U.S. senator who led the anti-communist witchhunt at the height of 1950s Cold War hysteria.

Rightwing legislators including Danny Danon, a sponsor of the inquiry, said protesters were fighting for the democracy of foreign countries and doing it for money. Knesset member Michael Ben Ari said they wanted to see Israel destroyed so there is no escape from taking steps against them.

Centrist opposition Kadima party chief Tzipi Livni thinks Lieberman embarrasses Israel. But Netanyahu is worse, she says, because he conspicuously fails to curb the outspoken minister.

Lieberman heads the Israel Our Home party which holds 15 lynchpin seats in Netanyahu's 74-seat coalition in the 120-member Knesset.

Analysts say this explains a flagrantly maverick act, which has included telling the United Nations that Middle East peace is a distant dream, whatever Netanyahu may say, and promoting a loyalty oath as a test to flush out the unpatriotic.

Lieberman says it's naive to believe Israel can placate its enemies. The collapse of governments in Tunisia and Lebanon in the past week underscores how volatile the Middle East remains.


Critics say Netanyahu tolerates Lieberman -- who lives in a settlement in the occupied West Bank -- at a cost to Israel's image, issuing limp responses to his verbal offensives that fall short of political disavowal.

But some say he likes his ally's outbursts because they make him look moderate and show how little room for manoeuvre his coalition has in talks with the Palestinians.

Last week the tone of their exchanges grew sour, however.

In the past, when Avigdor Lieberman dissed Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, looking at the bigger coalition partner, would wipe the foreign minister's spittle from his face and say it was raining, wrote Jerusalem Post's Herb Keinon.

But after Lieberman's tirade against senior Likud members who opposed his call to probe the activities of rights groups who receive foreign funding, Netanyahu delivered a sharp rebuke.

Likud is not the dictatorship of one opinion, he told the minister publicly, in a jibe at the democractic credentials of Lieberman's party, which critics say enjoys the unthinking support of one million of his fellow Russian-speaking Israelis.

Commenting in the leftwing daily Haaretz on Lieberman's repulsive crop of political ideas, Yossi Sarid said the immigrant from the former Soviet Republic of Moldova may have left Russia, but Russia didn't leave him.

Lieberman complains he is being stereotyped and vilified. I was compared to Senator McCarthy, I was called a fascist, a Stalinist, he told Yedioth in his lengthy monologue.

He blamed Netanyahu allies for giving the left wing the seal of approval to attack me, just as the anti-Semites also always find some Israeli to help them attack Jews.

Pundits suspect Lieberman's real aim is to prove to Netanyahu he can outflank him among an electorate that has moved steadily to the right, and so must be kept in the fold, or else.

Some suspect he covets the premiership and may feel it is within reach if Likud by the next election believes Netanyahu has gone soft under international pressure for a peace deal.

Lieberman is under long-term investigation for corruption and could be obliged to resign at any time to face charges, which would remove him from government but not from politics.

His party would likely remain in the coalition, rather than push Netanyahu into a new pact with the centrists of Kadima, and Lieberman could hope to beat the charges and return to the fray.






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