A little over a month ago, Foreign Minister and Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman visited Prague. The investigation against MK Faina Kirshenbaum and other Yisrael Beiteinu members hadn’t yet come to light, and Lieberman was in high spirits.
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One night, after his meetings with senior Czech officials, he and his staff went to the SaSaZu restaurant (a visit first reported by blogger Tal Schneider). At the end of the meal, the restaurant, whose chef is a former Israeli naval commando, invited the guests to participate in a custom inspired by the practice of sticking notes in the Western Wall: Every diner gets a labeled slip of paper on which he can write down three personal wishes. The restaurant keeps the slips, and on their next visit, diners can see if their wishes came true.
Lieberman and his staff also received slips. His office manager, Sigalit Levi, wrote a single wish on hers: “Avigdor Lieberman, prime minister.”
The optimism felt by Lieberman and his staff didn’t stem solely from the wine. The main reason was the polls the party had conducted in December. According to sources in Yisrael Beiteinu, most of those internal polls showed the party winning 12 to 14 seats in the March election; some showed it winning 16 seats. In several subsequent speeches, Lieberman cited the latter number as his party’s target.
The polls convinced Lieberman and his staff that with a good campaign and smart politicking, on the day after the election, he could arrange a deal with another party leader – Isaac Herzog, Moshe Kahlon or even Benjamin Netanyahu – under which the two would serve as prime minister in rotation.
But three days after he returned to Israel, the corruption investigation against Yisrael Beiteinu erupted with a bang. Police questioned Kirshenbaum, the party secretary general; campaign manager David Godovsky; Agriculture Ministry director general Rami Cohen and others, neutralizing people who had been expected to be intensively involved in the party’s campaign.
Since then, the optimism has vanished; the party and its leader are in a crisis mood. The main reason is Yisrael Beiteinu’s sharp drop in the polls. Most polls show it getting only five to seven seats – roughly half the 12 it has today. The dream Levi wrote on her slip of paper has been shelved.
One of the first things Lieberman did after the investigation became public knowledge was commission a poll by Dr. Mina Tzemach, whose surveys had consistently shown the party doing worse than other pollsters predicted. The results of that poll, which included 1,000 respondents, arrived a week ago, and given the party’s grim mood, they were actually comforting: eight seats. Next week, Tzemach will do another poll, in part to assess the impact of the presentation of the party’s Knesset slate earlier this week.
One question many Yisrael Beiteinu members have been asking themselves in recent weeks is what will happen the day after the election if the unflattering polls prove true. What will Lieberman do if his party shrinks to roughly the size of Meretz?
Their main fear is that Lieberman, who has already spent two terms as foreign minister, will see no point in occupying a lower-level post like housing or transportation minister. Instead, he might decide to take a time-out from politics, perhaps to realize an old dream of writing movie screenplays. One minister who was removed from the party’s Knesset slate in recent weeks said a few days before his ouster that such a scenario might well come to pass if Yisrael Beiteinu got less than 10 seats.
If Lieberman indeed quits the Knesset, it’s not at all clear what will become of Yisrael Beiteinu. Will he hand the reins to one of the women in the second and third slots on his ticket – Orly Levi-Abekasis or Sofa Landver – but continue to run the party from afar? Will the party break up and disappear from the political map? It’s hard to imagine such things happening, but if Yisrael Beiteinu doesn’t stop sliding in the polls, they could.
And as if what’s happening to his party weren’t enough, Lieberman also experienced a personal crisis a few weeks ago when his mother died. Lieberman, an only son, was very close to his parents; they were the only people with whom he shared everything. In recent weeks, he has mentioned them in almost every speech and interview.
Lieberman is frustrated by the situation, especially the police probe. His attacks on the police and the attorney general are undoubtedly part of his campaign, aimed at bringing back voters who have fled, but they also reflect his genuine feelings of political persecution by the law enforcement system. In part, that feeling is based on his party’s steady slide in the polls since the investigation came to light.
Yet if Lieberman is considering leaving politics after the election, he doesn’t show it. In private conversations, he says he’ll remain in politics as long as he feels he can influence the public debate and put issues on the public agenda. Yesterday, his Facebook and Twitter accounts mentioned a long list of issues that he said his party has advanced during the last two Knessets.
In discussions with his campaign staff, Lieberman has cited the first week of February as the time when the true balance of power among the parties will start becoming clear. By then, the parties’ slates will be finalized, any mergers will already have happened, and floating voters will have started making up their minds.
A certain dissonance emerges from most of these meetings. On one hand, the party is failing to gain strength in the polls. But on the other, field activists are broadcasting enthusiasm. Lieberman is convinced the polls will prove wrong, and that he can reverse the slide. Despite the crisis, his target remains unchanged – 16 seats.
On Sunday, Lieberman will leave the country to pay official visits to Moscow and Beijing. When he returns, he’ll receive the results of the second poll he commissioned from Tzemach. Then he’ll have a better idea of whether he has any chance of even approaching this ambitious target.