Corruption Scandal in Lieberman's Party Could Redraw Political Map

Overall, the right-wing camp could be the principal beneficiary of Lieberman’s public-opinion collapse. The Likud, however, seems dead in the water.

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Political corruption scandal reboots election campaigns.
Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

The corruption scandal encompassing many of the senior, strong and well-connected people in Yisrael Beiteinu, the party led by Avigdor Lieberman, hit the headlines about 80 days before the critical day – March 17. Just as Hollywood likes to release movies ahead of Christmas, in these parts, criminal affairs related to Lieberman and his party always surface on the eve of an election. In campaign terms, two and a half months is an eternity. The dust will settle, the detainees will be released, the investigation will continue, and indictments are unlikely to be handed down before the election. Still, it’s clear even now that the blow sustained by Lieberman’s party will stigmatize it and leave it with a bruise that won’t heal by voting day.

It’s still too soon to say how damaging the blow will be. But quite possibly, December 24, 2014, will go down as the most significant day of the election campaign. Concrete damage, both electoral and in terms of image, inflicted on Yisrael Beiteinu, which even before the latest events was barely polling 10 seats in the surveys, could generate shockwaves that will affect not only the party itself but other areas of the political map – particularly the center-left, which is thrumming in anticipation of a change of government.

Lieberman was supposed to be the linchpin of the mechanism to unseat Netanyahu, together with Moshe Kahlon and his new Kulanu party – the two already signed a surplus-vote agreement – and the leaders of Labor, Yesh Atid and Meretz. If Yisrael Beiteinu remains under a heavy cloud of corruption and inner-rot suspicions, some of its seats could be lost to parties like Likud, Habayit Hayehudi, and maybe Kulanu.

Overall, the right-wing camp could be the principal beneficiary of Lieberman’s public-opinion collapse. The exultation in Likud Facebook and WhatsApp groups reflected the high spirits there in the light of the developments.

In the past few months, since the end of Operation Protective Edge, Lieberman has been trying to brand himself as a mature, judicious and responsible leader possessing regional-global vision. In short: premiership material. His remarks this week in a closed meeting at Tel Aviv University could just as easily have been voiced by Labor leader MK Isaac Herzog, his new political partner MK Tzipi Livni, or even Meretz leader MK Zahava Gal-On.

Foreign Minister Lieberman warned against a “diplomatic tsunami” and the deterioration of Israel’s relations with the European Union, with possibly crippling effects for the economy, with a reference to the economic catastrophe in Russia. He was critical of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s failed status-quo policy, and emphasized the need for a political initiative vis-a-vis the Palestinians, an agreement that will entail the evacuation of settlements, and so on.

Lieberman, then, appears to have embarked on a course of conciliation with center-left voters, and as usual he is taking no prisoners in his campaign. Thirteen years ago, Shimon Peres tried to persuade the Labor Party Convention to vote in favor of joining the first Ariel Sharon government, shouting, as he held up the coalition agreement with Likud, “This is ‘Gandhi’ [nickname of the ultranationalist Rehavam Ze’evi]? This is Lieberman?” It turns out he was right. As always, he foresaw developments before any of us. This is Lieberman?!

Precisely against the background of his strategic move to position himself as the only alternative to the premiership in the center-right, the entanglement of close confidants, notably Deputy Interior Minister Faina Kirshenbaum, hurts his chances.

In the past, criminal investigations against Lieberman tended to have a boomerang effect. The Russian voters who constitute his major constituency defended and voted for him in their masses. But the DNA of centrist voters is different. This campaign is characterized by the fact that many voters, especially those left of Likud, are complaining they have no one to vote for. In a certain constellation, Lieberman and Yisrael Beiteinu could have given them a wink and a nod. No longer. The election campaign that’s existed, albeit at low intensity, for three weeks already, rebooted itself on Wednesday.

Hardened arteries

The Likud primary, set for next Wednesday, is undoubtedly among the most dismal and uninspiring in the party’s history. There are no new stars, no attractive public figures willing to abandon an honorable career and leap into the cauldron, as in the past.

This is one more indication of Likud’s decline and general exhaustion, along with the public’s growing disgust with the ruling party of the past six years – which, nevertheless, still has a reasonable chance, according to the polls, of forming the next government. But no one is scrambling to get aboard. People are either abandoning ship or keeping their distance from it, as though it’s tainted.

Take the 2009 election campaign, for example. A tidal wave of political talents washed over Likud, threatening to drown Netanyahu. The party’s princeliest princes, Dan Meridor and Benny Begin, came home; and former chief of staff Moshe Ya’alon came on board, along with retired major generals with Mapai (Labor forerunner) exteriors, Assaf Hefetz and Uzi Dayan, as did former IDF Spokesperson Miri Regev and others.

The first signs of osteoporosis were discernible in 2013: A favorite son, Moshe Kahlon, left, but some Kadima refugees wanted in, including the prodigal son Tzachi Hanegbi, who was elected to the slate, and former Shin Bet security service chief Avi Dichter, who failed then but is trying his luck again.

The Likud slate for the 20th Knesset will lack Gideon Sa’ar, a leading figure, who’s taking a break from politics; and Reuven Rivlin, who was elected president. The party is like standing water, like a turgid puddle under the rusty tap in the backyard.

But in the other parties, things are happening. The union between Labor and Hatnuah, of blessed memory – or more accurately Tzipi Livni and Amir Peretz – gave Isaac Herzog’s party the lead in the polls. Next month, a retired major general will also join the party, the de rigueur “security expert” in Israel. It might be MK Shaul Mofaz, “Mr. Security” in terms of experience and his record, or possibly former director of Military Intelligence Amos Yadlin. Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg, chairman of the Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Council for Higher Education for the past six years, and the person who headed the cost-of-living committee after the 2011 summer of social protest, is also expected to be on the joint slate.

New blood is also flowing in Habayit Hayehudi. Candidates for its slate include Danny Dayan, a former chairman of the Yesha settlers’ council, and Ronen Shoval, the founder of Im Tirtzu, which advocates “Zionist values.” Former chief military rabbi Brig. Gen. Avichai Rontzki, whose name was linked to semi-political activity in the IDF during Operation Protective Edge, as an emissary of Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett, is another well-known figure who’s joining the right-wing party. Even MK Yair Lapid, who heads a political brand that’s set to lose half its MKs, has managed to recruit a new face: Haim Yellin, head of the Eshkol Regional Council, whose star blazed during the war in Gaza.

But Likud? Nada. A party that has a realistic chance of remaining in the leadership after the elections is currently unable to attract even one appealing new name.

What we’re likely to get in Likud, after the primary next week, is the most far-right slate ever in the party, who could make it into the top 10 of the party slate of Knesset candidates. Yuval Steinitz and others like him will have to sweat again.

It’s amazing to think that in 2006, even after many of the centrists in Likud followed Ariel Sharon into Kadima (including Livni, Mofaz, Ehud Olmert, Roni Bar-On and Meir Sheetrit), they still left behind more of a balanced mainstream slate than the present one or the one to come.

At present, Netanyahu leads the left-wing bloc in Likud. And that says it all, just as it says nothing.

Militant moderate

For Moshe Ya’alon, the Likud primary is absolutely critical. After 21 months as defense minister, he expects to be upgraded from seventh place on the slate, the slot he was elected to twice in succession. The qualities that won him the esteem of the public – security moderation, judiciousness, a non-militant approach – don’t sit well with most Likud members. His approach in Operation Protective Edge wasn’t bellicose enough for them, and they didn’t like his refusal to occupy Gaza. In his frequent brawls with Bennett, they sided with the latter.

Now he needs their mercy. An election poster designed for him in the digital media reflects his dilemma. He’s seen looking into the camera with a tank firing and raising dust in the background, an attack helicopter overhead. The caption, using Ya’alon’s nickname, reads: “Bogie, a leader with responsibility!” On the one hand, responsibility; on the other, don’t forget who killed more Arabs here than anyone, and in big numbers, too.

The ad itself isn’t very elegant. It recalls a poster for a cheap war movie in the 1980s. It also raises two contradictory quandaries. First, there’s an ethical problem in the crass use the defense minister is making of the IDF for vested political-party interests. Second, if that’s your game, why discriminate? Why do only the Armored Corps and the air force get glory? What about the navy, intelligence, the infantry? Don’t they deserve a little stardust?

United we fall

The Bible quiz for Jewish youth was founded in the late 1950s. Four years ago, a half-brother was born to it, in the form of a quiz for adults, which is a lot less appealing. It’s a kind of state ceremony, wholly funded by the Education Ministry.

The quiz was held in Jerusalem this week, with the prime minister as keynote speaker. Netanyahu wasn’t ashamed to turn a state event into an election rally, launching the negative campaign devised by his new Republican adviser, and badmouthing the heads of the Labor-Hatnuah list, Herzog and Livni, who visited the Western Wall the day before to light Hanukkah candles.

“I heard someone, a female someone, say that the Western Wall will remain in our hands,” Netanyahu told the crowd. “How is the Kotel going to remain in our hands? As an enclave in Palestinian territory? And how will we get to it? In convoys? By helicopter?” He went on to talk about Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Jerusalem. The audience applauded. Just say “Jerusalem” and they applaud.

Apparently, no one has told the prime minister that currently, under his patriotic leadership, entry into some neighborhoods in the eastern part of the city may not required APCs, but does necessitate well-armored police vehicles. Moreover, concrete pylons were placed at the entrance to some of these neighborhoods lately, for the greater glory of the city that will never again be divided. And high-schoolers from other cities are canceling trips to our eternal capital for fear they will be run over or stabbed.

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