Q&A: Avigdor Lieberman on Israel's Future

One of the biggest surprises of Israel's recent election was the success of Avigdor Lieberman's party, Yisrael Beytenu. As Israeli Arabs demonstrated against their government during the recent invasion of Gaza, Lieberman's popularity rose. His fans were attracted by his proposal of a loyalty oath for all Israelis obviously directed at the Arab population. Last week Lieberman sat down for his first foreign interview with NEWSWEEK's Lally Weymouth. Excerpts: (Article continued below...)

Weymouth: You've proposed that the Israeli Arabs in the Wadi Ara [an area inside the 1967 border] be transferred to the Palestinian Authority and that Israeli settlers in other areas be annexed to Israel in a land swap.
Lieberman: The dividing line for Yisrael Beytenu is who supports terror and who fights terror. We cannot accept that there are people in Israel that even during even the war openly supported Hamas.

You're talking about Israeli Arabs?
Of course, but not only Arabs. I'm sorry to say that there were also Jews.

You propose to say these people are no longer Israeli citizens or that they're supposed to go to the Palestinian territories?
First of all, [I propose] to outlaw these parties and these political leaders [who supported Hamas]. Secondly, there must be some kind of national or military service for all Israelis.

We take all our examples from Europe or the United States. For example, the pledge. When I suggested the exact procedure like in the United States for the pledge, everybody here said, "You're a racist, you're a fascist." Why?

It's not mandatory in America. No one's going to kick you out of the country if you don't take it.
I agree with this. We don't have a proposal to kick people out of the country. But I think the country must demand from the citizens real responsibility. It's a crazy thing in Israel that a minister doesn't agree to our anthem. I can't imagine it ... The next point is our relations with the Palestinians. What is [the] reason for so longstanding a conflict? Many people say it's about occupation, settlements, settlers, etc. I think that's a misunderstanding. Before 1967, it was the same. And what was before 1948? It was the same. We have friction between Jews and Arabs.

You went to talk to both Tzipi Livni and Netanyahu. Why did you evaluate Netanyahu as being the better leader?
[The best] solution for us [would have been] a government of the three biggest parties, Likud, Kadima and Yisrael. It will be a stable government that can deal with all the problems from the economy to Iran.

Why couldn't they be combined? Because Livni wanted Netanyahu to agree to a two-state solution?
The key is not two states. Bibi understands that there must be a solution, but the key was rotation [of the job of prime minister].

What portfolio would you like?
I think I can hold every portfolio—defense, finance and Foreign Ministry. I think personally I'd like the foreign office.

Do you think you would have a problem with the international community, living in a settlement and having very hard-line views?
I've met everybody—Condoleezza Rice, Tony Blair, Javier Solana. They know me. I don't see that it would be an obstacle.

But you have George Mitchell here as the special envoy for Middle East peace, who wrote a report in 2001 calling the settlements an obstacle to peace.
We must explain to Mr. Mitchell that his … is the wrong view. [Settlements are] only one part of the problem.

If you become foreign minister in Benjamin Netanyahu's government, will you continue the peace process?
Of course, but we will put things in the right line. Not to start with a final agreement, [but] to [go] step by step. You can't start with Jerusalem or the evacuation of the settlements. You must start with the security and the economy. You must strengthen the Palestinian Authority.

Would you give up the Golan Heights to make a deal with Syria?
I don't see why we must give up the Golan Heights. Damascus is the center of world terror. All these organizations, [Islamic] Jihad and Hamas, their headquarters are in Damascus. Syria supports Hizbullah.

But there are people in your military who argue that if Israel could make a deal with Syria, perhaps you could split them off from Iran.
No, we cannot split them off. Even [Syrian] President Bashar Assad says that even if he receives the Golan Heights, he will continue his ties with Iran. People don't want to see the truth.

Do you believe the Obama administration will be as supportive of Israel as President Bush was?
We respect every American administration, every American president. We'll respect any choice [of] the American people. We expect you [to] respect any choice of the people of Israel.

But people in the United States think you are a racist. What do you say to those people?
I think they don't understand our reality …

The problem is hypocrisy. Every time people from the United States start to condemn Israel's violations of human rights, [I tell them] I'm still waiting for a congressional hearing on human rights in Saudi Arabia. After that, I'll be ready to hear about human rights in Israel, not before.