Avigdor Lieberman • Photo credit: URIEL SINAI/Getty Images

5 Things You Need to Know About Israel’s New Putin-Loving Defense Minister

By Yochi Dreazen • Foreign Policy • MAY 18, 2016

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just fired a well-regarded defense minister known for his close ties to Washington and replaced him with one known for his close ties to Moscow and jaw-droppingly harsh anti-Arab rhetoric.

Here are five things to know about Avigdor Lieberman, the Moldovan-born former nightclub bouncer now charged with overseeing the Middle East’s most powerful military.

1) He wants to behead disloyal Arabs.

Lieberman has spent years calling for the death penalty for convicted terrorists. He’s recently given a sense of how he thinks some of those militants should be put to death, and it isn’t pretty.

“Those who are with us deserve everything, but those who are against us deserve to have their heads chopped off with an axe,” he said at an election rally in February.

Ahmad Tibi, a prominent Israeli-Arab politician, promptly replied that Lieberman was the “Jewish Islamic State.”

2) He wants to exile some Israeli-Arab politicians.

During a heated televised debate last year, Lieberman brutally attacked Iman Odeh, the leader of the Joint List, an alliance of Israeli-Arab political parties that is one of the largest blocs in the Israeli Knesset.

According to a report in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Lieberman told Odeh that he was part of a “fifth column,” and said “you’re not wanted here” and should “go to Gaza.” He also referred to Odeh as a “liar and a traitor.”

Lieberman has previously called for Arab citizens of Israel to take a loyalty oath, an idea many rejected out of hand. He’s also talked about making several Israeli-Arab towns part of a future state of Palestine regardless of whether its inhabitants wanted to remain part of Israel.

3) He really likes Vladimir Putin.

Lieberman has repeatedly refused to criticize the behavior of the Russian strongman, who he describes as a rare leader who truly understands the threat posed by Islamist extremism.

“Russia, more than anyone, is very familiar with terror,” Lieberman said during a 2009 trip to Moscow said. “Russia itself has suffered from double standards.”

Two years later, Lieberman, then serving as Israel’s foreign minister, broke with most of his diplomatic colleagues by praising Russia’s controversial parliamentary elections as free and democratic. By way of contrast, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the vote was neither free nor fair.

And it’s more than just warm words: when Putin annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014, Israeli diplomats from Lieberman’s Foreign Ministry abstained from a largely-symbolic vote condemning the Russian invasion.

4) He really doesn’t like Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

In January, Lieberman derided the hard-line Turkish president as an “anti-Semitic, neighborhood bully.” He said that Europe’s refusal to condemn Erdogan for some of his past rhetoric “takes us back to the 1930s” — a clear reference to the harassment and persecution of Jews in Germany in the run-up to the Holocaust.

After years of escalating tensions, Netanyahu is working hard to repair ties with Ankara, especially when it comes to military-to-military cooperation. Lieberman’s appointment to the defense ministry probably won’t help.

5) He doesn’t technically live in Israel.

Lieberman lives in Nokdim, an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, making him perhaps the only defense minister in the world who doesn’t live in the recognized borders of his own country.

In November 2014, four Hamas militants were arrested and charged with planning to kill Lieberman with an anti-tank rocket while he drove to his home.