Lieberman's Collapse – and Survival

Yisrael Beiteinu leader miscalculated where voters stand, and misjudged to what extent the second generation of Russian newcomers is well integrated into Israel’s fabric.

ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
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Lieberman in Jerusalem, March 17, 2015.
Lieberman in Jerusalem, March 17, 2015.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

Slightly over 50 Yisrael Beiteinu activists gathered last night at the Ramada Hotel in Jerusalem for an election night event. Behind the speaker’s podium on center stage was a huge blue and white banner bearing the party’s main slogan – “Tachles Lieberman” (“Lieberman gets things done”). The walls were adorned with blue and white balloons, but despite attempts to bestow a festive atmosphere to the occasion, the prevailing mood was one of apathy.

At 10 P.M., when the three main TV Channels came out with their forecasts, a deep silence fell on the hall. The forecast giving the party only five seats was welcomed with a sigh of relief and resignation by some of the candidates who were present, as well as by dozens of activists.

On one hand the party was crushed, scraping the very bottom, yet on the other hand it passed the electoral threshold - at least "for now," as the party chairman Avigdor Lieberman told his rival Ayman Odeh from the Arab Joint List in their TV debate. When the final tally is reached, and mainly depending on voter turnout in the Arab sector, the party could end up with four seats or even slip under the required threshold.

Only nine years ago, in the 2006 elections, Lieberman’s party garnered 11 seats, jumping to 15 seats in 2009, which brought Lieberman the Foreign Minister’s portfolio, the most senior post he’s held since entering politics. In the 2013 elections the party got 11 seats again, which due to the deal made with Likud grew to 13 seats after a while. It’s amazing to think that only a few months ago Lieberman seriously considered himself to be the next prime minister. He actually formulated an operative plan for an alliance with Yair Lapid and Moshe Kahlon, which would hopefully land him the coveted job.

Up to a few days ago Lieberman was predicting double-digit figures for the seats he wins. He knew very well that this was a fantasy, but believed that if he didn’t set this as the objective his supporters would drift away to vote Likud or Yesh Atid, or stay home entirely on election day. On Tuesday, his people tried to present the five seats they won as a true electoral achievement. They denied claims that this reflected a collapse of the party, stating that they won what the polls had predicted.

Party activists claim that the reason for the serious slide in the polls, bringing the party perilously close to annihilation, is the police investigation that was launched against senior party officials with great fanfare three months ago. They argue that the investigation led to the “flight” of veteran Israelis, leaving them with the hard core of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. In the absence of this investigation, they claim that they would have obtained 10 seats or more.

Even if the police investigation played some role in the party’s poor showing it was not the only reason, and possibly not even the major one. Just as in the previous elections, Lieberman wholeheartedly adopted the forecasts made by his advisor Arthur Finkelstein, which turned out to be erroneous. Again, Lieberman misjudged where his voters stand, and to what extent the second generation of Russian newcomers is well integrated into Israel’s fabric, reluctant to cast votes on a sectorial basis.

Party chief Lieberman failed to understand what interests the average voter. He showed contempt for the social protest and appeared to be – not without justification - a wealthy man well-connected to oligarchs and disinterested in the distress of average citizens. Whereas the elections were mainly about the cost of housing, the cost of living and governmental corruption, Lieberman spoke of capital punishment for terrorists and the banishing of MK Haneen Zoabi to Jenin.

Furthermore, despite slogans such as “a promise is a promise” or “Tachles Lieberman,” many Israelis, including those identified with the right, viewed Lieberman as an opportunist who flip-flops on issues, uttering promises he can’t keep. Thus, after attacking Ehud Olmert's government in 2009 for not crushing Hamas, he congratulated the Muslim Brotherhood-led government of Mohammed Morsi in 2012 for brokering a ceasefire in Gaza at the end of Operation Pillar of Defense.

In 2014 he again called for annihilating Hamas during Operation Protective Edge, attacking Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon for their hesitant conduct of the war, as he defined it. In addition, Lieberman veered towards the left last year, in an attempt to woo centrist voters and become their leader. He spoke of a peace plan he was working on with leaders in the Arab world and became the prime supporter of Secretary of State John Kerry. He warned of international isolation and a European boycott due to the stalled diplomatic negotiations, declaring that the border between Israel and the Palestinian state should pass close to Highway 6, west of the 1967 borders. His peace plan led nowhere, and when ahead of the elections he veered right again he discovered that he had created much hostility towards himself among settlers, losing many of his supporters on the right.

What may be the most interesting phenomenon is the boomerang effect caused by one on the most significant moves he launched – the raising of the electoral threshold. This move was part of an aggressive campaign he waged against Israel’s Arabs and their political leaders, but led to the unification of Arab parties, which strengthened the Arab public’s political power. The hatred and racism exhibited towards Arab citizens by his party only hastened his downfall. At some point it looked as though the more he attacked Ayman Odeh the more seats he lost in polls. At the end of election day Lieberman found himself in a situation in which increased Arab voter turnout is still threatening his political future, forcing him to anxiously wait for the final tally.

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