TEL AVIV — When Palestinians and Jewish settlers in the southern West Bank hear the name Avigdor Lieberman, the man tapped as Israel's next defense minister, they don't necessarily think of his divisive rhetoric or pugnacious political prescriptions.
Rather, they're thinking much closer to home.
Route 398, the so-called Lieberman Road, converts West Bank settlements and outposts into suburbs of Jerusalem.
It's a 9 kilometer stretch of highway that bypasses Bethlehem and connects Jerusalem with a string of Jewish settlements and outposts, including Nokdim, the community of nearly 2,000 that Israel's defense minister-designate calls home.
Before construction of the road began more than a decade ago — when Lieberman served as minister of construction and housing under the government of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon — it took some 40 minutes to navigate the many Palestinian villages that separated Nokdim from Jerusalem.
Today, the commute is a mere 10 minutes, allowing drivers to zip through a network of bridges and tunnels straight into the capital.
Hagit Ofran, an analyst at Peace Now, an Israel-based nongovernmental organization, estimated that 392 acres of West Bank land were expropriated for purposes of the bypass. Since the road opened to traffic in 2008, she estimated that the Jewish population in the area grew by some 90 percent.
In an October 2015 study, Ofran compared figures by Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics before and after the opening of Route 398. She found that prior to 2008, there were some 3,122 Jewish settlers residing in four main communities along Lieberman Road. By 2014, those figures mushroomed to 5,923.
Just in Nokdim, Lieberman's home, the population grew by more than 107 percent, from a modest 886 in 2008 to 1,836 in 2014.
"Immediately after the Lieberman Road was opened, many construction projects were initiated in Tko'a, Nokdim and the nearby illegal outposts ... where hundreds of new residential units were built for young couples and families with children," Ofran wrote.
Hanan Ashrawi, director of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Department of Culture and Information, said Lieberman "represents the epitome of hard-line racist politics." In an interview Monday, she flagged Lieberman's championing of legislation that would require the death penalty for terrorists — "but not Jewish terrorists, only those tried in military court, which are Palestinian."
Ashrawi ticked off a list of "horrific" statements that Lieberman has made over the years, including the transfer of Palestinian citizens of Israel.
"This kind of transfer mentality to preserve the purity of the Jewish majority is a clear expression of exclusion and racism," she said. "Ironically, that road that leads to where he lives represents for us Israel's plan to steal Palestinian land, build bypass roads to connect illegal colonies, and impose a settler grid and infrastructure over the West Bank."
In an interview earlier this year, Saeb Erekat, secretary general of the PLO and close confidante to Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, said that Lieberman Road constitutes "a daily reminder" of the methodical manner in which Israel is incorporating settlements at the expense of a future Palestinian state.
So-called Lieberman Road is shown as a red line.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Peace Now
"This Lieberman road is just one of the many outrageous injustices that are eroding any chance to arrive at a two-state settlement," Erekat told Defense News. "There were 200,000 settlers when we began [the peace process with Israel] and today we have 600,000 settlers."
As of Monday evening, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was still attempting to seal a coalition deal with Lieberman's Israel is Our Home party that would broaden his right-wing coalition government.
The deal — hammered out in principle late last week as Netanyahu was conducting parallel and now defunct talks with Israel's centrist Zionist Union party — led to last Friday's resignation of Moshe Ya'alon, a former Israel military chief of staff who has led Israel's defense establishment for the past three years.
Ya'alon's resignation sparked widespread criticism of Netanyahu and concern about how Lieberman — a former corporal who has called for reconquering Gaza, bombing Egypt's Aswan damn, deposing Abbas and trading Israeli Arab communities for Jewish settlement blocs in any future peace deal — would manage the nation's security affairs.
Netanyahu responded to critics May 22, when he insisted that it was he who would continue to steer the ship of state, and that people should "stop their wailing and mourning" about his choice of Lieberman as defense minister.
"Ultimately, it's the prime minister who directs everything. ... That's the way it is going to be now," Netanyahu said.
On Lieberman's combative statements and policy prescriptions, Netanyahu added: "I hear a lot of voices; many things are said in politics."
In a May 23 editorial published in Israel's Ha'aretz newspaper, three-time former Defense Minister Moshe Arens rejected "defenders of the murky deal to oust an excellent defense minister."
According to Arens, the job of Israeli defense minister is "by far the most important minister, shouldering direct responsibility for Israel's security, the personal security of Israel's citizens and the lives of their children serving in the Israel Defense Forces."
Those who claim otherwise, Arens wrote, show "an abject ignorance of the workings of the defense establishment."
Nevertheless, Ofran of Peace Now noted that on the settlement issue, she didn't expect Lieberman to deviate materially from actions taken by Ya'alon as defense minister.
She said that Ya'alon, like all Israeli defense ministers, has near total authority over the West Bank and Gaza by virtue of overseeing the Defense Ministry's Civil Administration. As such, every road, checkpoint, construction plan and regulation pertaining to daily lives of Palestinians comes under the authority of the defense minister.
"Even though Lieberman is a West Bank settler, he is not beholden to that community the way that Ya'alon was.
"Ya'alon needed their support in the Likud party, where they control the primary process, whereas Lieberman — although I'm afraid for many bad things he might do as minister — in terms of settlements, it's not automatic that he'll be a big advocate of the settlers. His friends come from big money abroad and people from Russia and the former Soviet Union, not settler activists," she said.
According to Ofran, Ya'alon approved construction in some 20 new settlements and authorized "thousands of dunams of Palestinian land."
"I'm not sure we'll see any change for the worse in terms of settlement policy," she said. "In other words, Ya'alon under Netanyahu's previous government was bad enough."
Efraim Inbar, director of the conservative Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, echoed a similar theme in that Lieberman should not be expected to drastically augment Israel's West Bank settlement drive. He, too, noted that Ya'alon had more of a direct connection to the Jewish community in what Inbar called Judea and Samaria, the biblical terms used for the West Bank.
"Ya'alon, being a kibbutznik, always had a respect for settlers. Lieberman comes from a different psychological and political milieu. He's not a typically ideological settler. After all, he once said he was ready to give up his own home for a peace agreement with the Palestinians," Inbar said.
"People who think [Lieberman] will do whatever he wants don't understand decision-making in Israel," he said. "There's a difference between rhetorical bravado and what he'll have to do with the security interests of the country at stake."
Opall-Rome is Israel bureau chief for Defense News. She has been covering U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation, Mideast security and missile defense since May 1988. She lives north of Tel Aviv. Visit her website at www.opall-rome.com.