Binyamin Netanyahu looks set to appoint Avigdor Lieberman, a right-wing nationalist demagogue, as his Defence Minister in a new Israeli government.
It had looked like Netanyahu’s Likud party might make a deal with the moderate parties to its left in order to bolster his governing coalition’s parliamentary majority.
Instead, the Prime Minister is now negotiating with the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu (“Israel is our home”). Apparently Lieberman, the party’s leader, demanded the role of defence minister in exchange for his support.
The former defence boss, Moshe Ya’alon, was on the moderate wing of Likud. Tellingly, he had fallen out with Netanyahu over internet footage of an IDF soldier executing a wounded Palestinian (Ya’alon and the military establishment, unlike the Likud right and Yisrael Beitenu, took the position that murdering the wounded is a violation of army ethics.)
When he was dumped from the role Ya’alon claimed the government has been taken over by “extremist and dangerous elements”.
It is true that the government is now dominated either by nationalists or religious conservatives — this in a country more accustomed to broader coalition governments.
Avigdor Lieberman has made his name by making inflammatory, often straightforwardly racist, incitements against both Palestinians in the occupied territories and against the Arab citizens of Israel.
His base is among right-wing Jewish settlers in the West Bank, and a carefully cultivated bloc of support among Russian-speaking migrants from the former countries of the USSR. Lieberman himself is a West Bank settler, and moved to Israel from Moldova.
Much is made in the international press about how Lieberman used to be a night-club bouncer, a fact which tallies with his thuggish political persona. However, he is not just a thug. He is an extremely canny and calculating politician.
Like Donald Trump, his outrageous statements are not gaffes but precise, conscious attempts to divide society in a way that will favour his nationalist politics.
His appointment as defence minister would mark a serious worsening in the political situation in Israel-Palestine.