Israel’s controversial Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, 54, who resigned Friday after having been charged with breach of trust, has built up a reputation as a firebrand who has set his sights on leading the right-wing.
Lieberman, a key ally of the premier who is known for his anti-Arab stance, has been dogged by corruption allegations for years, and said as he resigned on Friday he would fight the charges and could return to the political scene in time for January 22 polls.
Born in the then-Soviet republic of Moldova, Lieberman immigrated to Israel in 1978 at the age of 20 and for a time worked as a bouncer in a nightclub in Beersheva.
He took a degree in social sciences from the prestigious Hebrew University, served in the army, then began to climb the political ladder of the national right.
For years, he was a loyal member of the long-dominant Likud, climbing through the ranks, becoming the chief of staff of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his first mandate from 1996-1999.
In 1999 Lieberman created his own ultra-nationalist party, Yisrael Beitenu (Israel is Our Home), aimed at capturing the votes of the swelling Soviet immigrant community. The party came third in 2009 elections.
To his critics a “racist,” to his supporters a refreshing tough talker on security, the ultra-nationalist was nicknamed by the media “Rasputin” and “KGB”, alluding to his authoritarian behaviour and his origins, highlighted by his slow speech and heavy accent.
The appointment of Lieberman in March 2009 as foreign minister, after his party gained 15 seats out of 120 in the Knesset, raised concerns among the international community about the Israeli government’s commitment to the peace process with its Arab neighbours.
Lieberman, shortly before the charges against him were announced on Thursday criticised Europe, saying its treatment of the Jewish state was comparable to policies during the Holocaust.
The stocky politician has called for the execution of Israeli Arab MPs who had dealings with Hamas, for Gaza to be “treated like Chechnya” and for Israel to fight Hamas “just like the United States did with the Japanese in World War II.”
Critics seize on his more outspoken comments to say he is a dangerous radical, a fascist and a racist who poses a threat to Israel’s Arab citizens and others.
He regularly got into verbal slanging matches with his Arab-Israeli Knesset colleagues whom he labelled “clowns” and “terrorists” while they shot back with “fascist,” “thug” and “immigrant.”
A settler from Nokdim, near Bethlehem, Lieberman wants to keep major Jewish settlement blocs in the occupied West Bank in return for transferring an adjacent area where many Arab-Israelis live to Palestinian control.
The married father-of-three served as national infrastructure minister in 2001-2002, transport minister in 2003-2004, and strategic affairs minister in 2007-2008.