Idol of hard-right tipped as Israeli kingmaker

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It is worth visiting one of the more bizarre recreational haunts of Jerusalem if you want to hear the authentic tones of the diehard, Soviet-born, supporters of Avigdor Lieberman. It is important to do so because Mr Lieberman, a far-right settler born in Moldova, could be the surprise of the Israeli election on Tuesday. Polls show he could be a coalition kingmaker with around 10 seats in the Knesset.

To the scores of hard-up migrants queuing for their complimentary thermal massage at the premises of the Ceragem firm, close to Mahane Yehuda market, Mr Lieberman is political idol. As leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu party (or "Israel Our Home"), he wants Israel's border with the northern West Bank redrawn. That would mean nearly half a million Israeli Arabs losing their citizenship, putting them on the other, Palestinian side, of the separation barrier. He wants remaining Arab citizens to pledge loyalty to Zionism or lose the right to vote. This week, he said that Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's plan for partial withdrawal from the West Bank would "perpetuate Hamas rule for the next century" and cause "ultimately, the end of the state of Israel".

Because of his policies, not to mention opposition charges of past association with criminal elements, his success has appalled liberal commentators. In yesterday's Haaretz newspaper, Uzi Benziman described his world view as "fascist".

But, queuing for her massage at Ceragem's, Anya would disagree. Speaking for many of the electorally crucial 900,000 Russian-speaking voters from the former Soviet Union, she said: "Lieberman's is the only Russian party. He is engaged in our problems and, for better or worse, he raises the important questions."

For Anya, who declined to give her surname but who has lived here with her family since arriving from Belarus from 1991, these questions include better social security for elderly, and often poor, recent immigrants. Did she want Mr Lieberman, a former transport minister, to be in the cabinet? "Of course, that's why I'm voting for him."

Eduard Zubkov, 67, from Ukraine, said he liked Mr Lieberman's "toughness", contrasting it to the present government's willingness - temporarily - to reopen the Karni cargo crossing in the face of a mounting humanitarian crisis in Gaza. "They opened it without anything changing. That's not tough."

And what about the armoured raid on the Jericho jail last week? "Yes. I approve of that. But one action is not a policy."

Having grown up in the city of Kharkov during the Second World War, Mr Zhukov added: "When I came here, I saw there was a war. And I know very well that, if your enemy attacks you, he should be destroyed."

Mr Zubkov then asked: "Can you imagine if Stalin had been in charge? He was a very tough ruler." Stalin, he said, "may have been a sadist who liked killing people," but he "did many things correctly," like wiping out illiteracy in the Soviet Union. "No democracy could have done that at that time. The problem with democracy is that it always gives power to mediocrity."

Yuri Bregman, 63, said he was torn between the two rival stars of the right. "I think Lieberman supports the wishes of the Russian-speaking people but I also know [Benjamin] Netanyahu is a very good economist," he said.

But, while he recognised that deep Israeli-Arab opposition to being reassigned to a Palestinian state made the problem "complex", he thought that it was a "very great" plan.

For Mikhail Pierich, 67, a party worker at the local Yisrael Beiteinu HQ, Mr Lieberman appeals: "First, because I want my children and grandchildren to be real Israelis and not to have an inferiority complex for being Russian; secondly, for his ideology; and thirdly, because I trust him. Whatever he says, he does."

Part of what disturbs Mr Lieberman's opponents, however, is the dance in which he has so far rejected overtures to join a right-wing "blocking majority" that could stop Mr Olmert taking office. He could be angling for a cabinet seat. "Instead of saying nyet to Mr Lieberman," Uzi Benziman wrote, "the heads of most parties are courting him."