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Former Netanyahu Aide’s Party Overtakes Likud with Russian Vote

March 30, 2006
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Avigdor Lieberman, a stern-mannered immigrant from Moldova, has become the new face of the Israeli right. Lieberman’s party, Yisrael Beiteinu, became the fourth-largest party in Israeli politics Tuesday, winning seats in the next Knesset from a strong base of Russian-speaking voters as well as tens of thousands of veteran Israelis.

“The party’s values are becoming Israel’s values, and this is just the beginning. I’m sure that next time we will be the governing party,” Lieberman declared Tuesday night, celebrating at the Jerusalem hotel where his supporters had gathered.

Those values Lieberman refers to include one of the pillars of his campaign: a snap answer to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the form of redrawing Israel’s map so that many Israeli Arab towns and villages become part of the West Bank and large Jewish settlements can be annexed to Israel.

The plan has been condemned, among others, by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon when it was first suggested two years ago.

Lieberman, whose party holds three seats in the current Knesset, also campaigned on a social agenda that appealed to many in the Russian-speaking community, speaking of jobs and welfare and highlighting plans to fight crime.

When Lieberman launched his campaign with the help of American political consultant Arthur Finklestein, he looked for ways to distinguish himself from other parties — specifically Kadima and Likud — and the land swap concept was put on the platform, his advisers said.

Before the elections, Ehud Olmert, then interim prime minister, said he would not include Lieberman’s party in a coalition. But with Kadima’s win of only 28 seats, the door could be open for a possible deal.

Lieberman, however, is firmly against any further unilateral withdrawals from the West Bank. He says Israel should not leave territory without getting something in return.

Lieberman himself lives in the West Bank settlement of Nokdim, a settlement that is in danger of being evacuated should Prime Minister-elect Ehud Olmert carry out his plan for future withdrawals from the West Bank.

Lieberman, 48, immigrated to Israel in 1978 and became active in politics as a student at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. There he worked not only as a bouncer at a campus pub but also as a Likud activist.

He rose to prominence as Benjamin Netanyahu’s top aide during his term as prime minister.

After infighting with what are commonly called the “Likud princes” — the sons and daughters of the party’s ruling elite — he left the party in 1999 to form Yisrael Beiteinu, Hebrew for “Israel is our Home,” aimed at the Russian electorate.

Vengeance is now his. Likud won only 11 seats in Tuesday’s election.

“The blistering defeat that Benjamin Netanyahu suffered yesterday probably hurts even more because it was his protege, Avigdor Lieberman, who, more than anyone else, was the one who caused his strength to dwindle,” wrote Avirama Golan, a commentator in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz on Wednesday.

Yuri Stern, a member of Yisrael Beiteinu, was pleased to see his party overtake Likud.

“This means that the old politics and the old elites have failed. The new elite is the immigrants we represent, and the technocratic public who became fed up with the failed running of the country,” he told reporters.

Analysts say voters were drawn to Lieberman for different reasons. The Russian-speaking supporters, which polls said accounted for roughly eight of his 12 seats, in part see him as their advocate — a success story in Israeli politics and a man they see as one of their own.

They also see in him the image of a strong, security-focused leader similar to the mold of Sharon. Many Russian voters who had planned to vote for Kadima because they admired Sharon jumped to Lieberman’s party after the prime minister fell into a coma in early January, according to analysts.

The veteran Israelis who voted for him were drawn in part from the pool of disillusioned right-wing voters who formerly supported Likud.

Shai Fux, 28, an Israeli-born high-tech worker from Haifa, said he decided to vote for Lieberman’s party not just for his security positions but his civic ones.

“His plan to fight crime suited me. Also because he is an immigrant from Russia he is aware of their issues, such as civil marriage,” he said, referring to concern of many immigrants and other Israelis that the country only recognizes marriages in Israel performed by Orthodox authorities.

Fux does not think Lieberman will have the power to carry through his plan to redraw Israel’s boundaries.

The plan, dismissed as untenable and even racist by some Israelis, resonated among supporters weary of the conflict and eager for what his campaign billed as a “logical solution” to Israel’s demographic future.

Lieberman argues that Israel’s large Arab population, which accounts for about 20 percent of the country, makes maintaining a Jewish majority in the future impossible.

“I don’t think his position is extreme,” said George Birnbaum, one of Lieberman’s political consultants on the campaign. “It’s a viable solution that wants to take into consideration an entity for the Palestinians and Arabs as well.”

Sharon, however, had harsh words for the plan as introduced first by Lieberman in 2004. “We regard Israeli Arabs as part of the state of Israel,” he said in response.

Under the plan, only Arabs who take an oath of allegiance to Israel and perform national service would be allowed to stay in Israel.

“I am enraged that he is still advocating these ideas,” Arab Knesset Member Azmi Bishara said, reflecting the anger of Israeli Arabs at Lieberman’s plan.

It reflects, he said, the feeling that their rights as full citizens here are under assault. “Nobody talks about giving up areas where Jews are living because Jewish citizenship is so fixed and constant.”

Ze’ev Khanin, a political science lecturer at Bar-Ilan University, thinks that Lieberman might soften his political tone when it comes to trying to maintain political influence.

He said he appears to be more of an opportunist than an ideologue, noting his renewed focus on the Russian community when it became politically opportune.

“He became Russian when he understood that is the way to come back to power,” Khanin said. “In my mind, his program is to go back to Likud and become prime minister.”

Birnbaum differs, saying Lieberman sticks to his beliefs.

“He is a person driven by one thing, what is good for the Jewish people,” he said. “His principles are very important to him.”

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