'A Promise Is a Promise,' but as Israel's Defense Minister, Lieberman Left Many Unfulfilled

The chairman of Yisrael Beiteinu failed to live up to pledges he made as defense minister, but his party did initiate and promote multiple hard-line laws

Avigdor Lieberman during a Yisrael Beiteinu party faction, May 30, 2019.
Meged Gozani

The Yisrael Beiteinu party will probably not have fond memories of its recent term in the Knesset. Party Chairman Avigdor Lieberman, who proudly touted slogans like “a promise is a promise,” and “only Lieberman understands Arabic,” had trouble making good on the commitments he scattered during the party’s campaign.

He was going to bring down the Hamas government, pass a law that would sentence terrorists to death and a law requiring the ultra-Orthodox to serve in the army – the latter being the stated reason for Israel's repeat election – which all remain unfulfilled. But while Lieberman’s achievements as a minister are debatable, the work he and his party did for Russian Israelis was  significant. 

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“If I become defense minister, I’ll give Mr. Haniyeh 48 hours – either return the bodies [of Israeli soldiers] and the civilians, or you’re dead,” he threatened shortly before he entered the cabinet, referring to Ismail Haniyeh, the head of the Hamas political wing in Gaza. A few months later, when he had become defense minister, his declaration seemed especially ludicrous.

Yisrael Beiteinu, which marks its 20th anniversary this year, has worked on two parallel tracks over the years. On the one hand the party was branded as a right-wing, secular Israeli party in which veteran Israelis serve, like Uzi Landau, Yair Shamir and former MK Orli Levi-Abekasis. On the other hand, it functioned as an immigrant party whose electorate eroded over the years. Despite its continued drop of Knesset seats, Russian Israelis continued to be a significant base of support for the party.

FILE Photo: MK David Rotem at the Knesset in Jerusalem, 2013.
Oren Nachshon

The Immigration Absorption Ministry, headed by Sofa Landver for some eight years, assisted tens of thousands of immigrants in finding work, funding scholarships and making more Hebrew studies programs available.

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At the same time, the party’s MKs spearheaded legislation to help particular segments of society. In 2006, the party championed a bill that would allocate about 5,000 shekels ($1,390) a month to people who were “assisting the neutralization of the results of the Chernobyl disaster.”

Three years ago the Knesset passed a law initiated by the party that the government, the president, the education system and the army commemorate “Immigration Day.”  A year later a similar law was passed to recognize the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany.

Nevertheless, MK Robert Ilatov  stuttered when asked to name one significant law that his party had passed in a radio interview. “I don’t remember right now all the laws we passed,” he said. But when pressed, he cited an amendment to the Basic Law on the Knesset, initiated by his party colleague MK Oded Forer. This clause allows a candidate for Knesset to be disqualified for their statements or actions. The law, intended to block candidates from running who speak out against the army or the state, was in fact used in the recent Knesset election to block the running of extreme right-wing candidate for the Otzma Yehudit party, Michael Ben-Ari.

The interview with Elituv did not do justice to him or his party. Yisrael Beiteinu was a dominant force in the Knesset in recent years and passed quite a few laws as independent initiatives as well as joint ones with other parties. This was not a party just for immigrants and the poor; it was also a party with clear right-wing initiatives that worked for bills dealing with the war on terror that were enshrined in law. In the last Knesset, Yisrael Beiteinu passed a law that bans terrorists convicted of murder or attempted murder from getting a third of their prison sentence reduced for good behavior. Yisrael Beiteinu was also one of the initiators of a law obligating organizations identified with the left to report whether they had received funding from foreign countries. Elituv and his colleagues also took part in passing a law ratcheting up the penalty for disgracing the state flag from one year’s imprisonment to three.

Sofa Landver arrives for a government meeting, Jerusalem, April 3, 2019.
Ohad Zwigenberg

The late Yisrael Beiteinu MK David Rotem served as the chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee for two consecutive terms and was one of the most active of its lawmakers in promoting legislation from the right.

In 2011, Rotem and Elituv succeeded passing a law intended to revoke the citizenship of a person convicted of terror. Later, the party nullified the possibility for students considered army deserters to receive financial assistance. Yisrael Beiteinu also worked in the last decade to advance a law requiring the state to provide financial assistance to families of missing Israeli soldiers and prisoners of war to travelling abroad in the efforts to locate the whereabouts of their loved ones.

During those years the party members provided aid to former residents of Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank by advancing legislation, supported across party lines,to pardon people convicted of crimes that did not endanger lives during the Gaza disengagement in 2005. Rotem also pushed for a law to cut the time needed to establish alternative settlements for the evacuees.

Yisrael Beiteinu MKs, led by Forer, were key players in discussions held by the committee in charge of the nation-state law. Before that, they worked to pass the law that allows civil suits to be brought against people who call for a boycott of Israel. The call for such a boycott was dubbed social injustice in this law for the first time.

It’s hard to know whether polls in the coming months will be able to predict the fate of Yisrael Beiteinu. Pollsters have trouble soliciting the opinions of the party’s supporters because many of them — especially elderly immigrants — do not have access to the polls published online. In the previous Knesset term, the party dealt with a major crisis when senior officials were indicted, among them the charismatic deputy minister Faina Kirschenbaum, who is suspected of transferring coalition funds to various organizations for personal gain. However, while many polls predicted at that time that the party would not make it into the Knesset, Election Day proved the loyalty of its supporters and gave it five Knesset seats.

The achievement allowed Yisrael Beiteinu to become the deciding factor in preventing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from establishing a new government. The key question now is whether it will reach similar standing in the next election.

In the upcoming election Lieberman will need an impressive achievement to remain relevant. After Lieberman’s battle with the ultra-Orthodox parties over the military draft law, Netanyahu will probably do everything in his power to put together a government without Yisrael Beiteinu. Likud’s election campaign is expected to be a personal revenge against Netanyahu’s once-close associate, in an attempt to weaken his party and siphon off seats.

That will be a test of Lieberman’s political acumen in deciding not to join the coalition. Only then will it be seen whether the clash with the ultra-Orthodox over the military draft law has led right-wing secular voters to cast their ballot for him, what effect the time at the helm of the Defense Ministry had on his supporters, and above all, whether the party’s voters remain loyal to him even after Likud does everything possible to persuade them to abandon him.