Analysis

Israel Election Results: How Avigdor Lieberman Has Made Himself King Bibi's Regicide

Israelis have an appetite for a hawkish leader willing to do battle for the rights of secular people in the face of perceived religious coercion

Avigdor Lieberman outside his home in Nokdim the day after the general election, September 18, 2019.
Emil Salman

The transformation of Avigdor Lieberman's political identity over the past year and a half has come as nothing but a head-spinning surprise for those who thought they knew everything about the leader of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party. (Live election results - click here)

For decades, Lieberman has been easily portrayed as a heavy-handed, even thuggish, authoritarian party boss running a fiefdom for immigrants from the former Soviet Union. In addition to fighting for their pension rights, he has made headlines for his ultra-hawkishness — against Gaza, for example — advocacy of the death penalty for terrorists, desire to impose “loyalty oaths” on Israeli Arabs, and his skirting of corruption allegations.

But a leader of the battle against religious coercion waving the banner of civil rights for secular Israelis? Insisting on Election Night that a “liberal, wide coalition” government be formed? Lieberman?

>> Read more: Maybe, just maybe, the age of Netanyahu has come to an end | Analysis ■  In defeat, Netanyahu looks to Iran and Trump for salvation ■ Bibi the magician has run out of rabbits | Analysis

Israeli politicians and pundits have watched in disbelief — and ultimately with admiration — at the maneuvering that has made the Moldova-born Lieberman the kingmaker. His party is set to take eight seats in the Knesset, up from five in the April election. It all began with his refusal, following this year’s first election, to join a coalition led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his former boss and longtime ally on the right.

Instead, Lieberman stood firm on his insistence that young ultra-Orthodox Jewish men be drafted into the army, amid his opposition to the funding of schools and other institutions that he called “a threat to the character and fabric of Israeli society as a whole.”

His unrelenting stance on religion-and-state issues kept him out of a coalition with Netanyahu and his “natural partners” in the ultra-Orthodox community, leading to Tuesday’s do-over election. In the September campaign, and now, Lieberman has insisted that he will only support a government not beholden to ultra-Orthodox demands.

Big trouble at Big Fashion

In the past, though Lieberman has striven to represent his immigrant constituency’s interests in matters like civil marriage and conversion — where it has clashed repeatedly with the Chief Rabbinate — he has usually capitulated to ultra-Orthodox demands in order to stay in power, cutting deals with figures like Interior Minister Arye Dery, the head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.

Avigdor Lieberman on election night in Jerusalem, September 17, 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

Lieberman, a resident of a West Bank settlement, isn’t Orthodox himself, but as a member of a broad-right political camp that includes both the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox, he takes care to present himself as highly respectful of Jewish tradition.

The first sign of his sea change took place in January 2018 when Lieberman — then defense minister — made a high-profile visit on a Saturday to Ashdod’s Big Fashion mall — one of three shopping centers in the southern city that’s home to many Israelis born in the Soviet Union.

After the visit, the city issued closure orders to businesses in the malls open on Shabbat, and a new law gave Dery the authority to repeal any future municipal bylaws letting stores open on the Sabbath. Angry secular Ashdod residents protested, many of them from the Russian-speaking community. The Shabbat shopping spree was seen as a move to help Lieberman retain his base — Russian-speaking Israelis — but it angered the ultra-Orthodox so much that Dery declared that he was “done with Avigdor Lieberman.”

The Battle of Ashdod appears to have foreshadowed the Lieberman of today. Perhaps it was then that he felt the power of stepping into a niche that so few Israeli politicians have occupied: a right-wing politician willing to be as confrontational with the ultra-Orthodox as they are to leftists and Arabs.

Lieberman, an astute student of Israeli politics, was surely aware of two key example from the past.

In 1983, former military chief Rafael Eitan founded the Tzomet party, recruiting as its leaders secular Israelis from kibbutzim and moshavim — former leftists who had swung rightward. Eitan married hard-right positions like annexing the West Bank and Gaza Strip to a call for the draft of ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students, and a reduction in yeshiva funding. He was an instant hit, winning eight of the Knesset’s 120 seats in the 1992 election.

Following in Eitan’s footsteps in the late ‘90s was outspoken journalist Tommy Lapid, who took the helm of the Shinui party and led it to six and then 15 seats in 1999 and 2003.

Both parties’ initial successes were short-lived; it didn’t help that they were led by political neophytes. But their electoral success proved that there was an appetite for a hawkish leader willing to do battle for the rights of secular Israelis in the face of perceived religious coercion.

Yair Lapid steps in

Lapid’s son Yair, a popular television anchorman, founded the Yesh Atid party in 2013 and is now the No. 2 in Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan party, which with 95 percent of the vote counted leads Netanyahu’s Likud at 33 to 32 seats. But the younger Lapid has never stood a chance of filling the anti-ultra-Orthodox space. While he has certainly proved himself willing to take on the ultra-Orthodox parties, he has never been able to shirk the center-left label. Even if many Israelis on the secular right have supported Lapid on religion and state, they don’t trust him as a leader on security issues.

In any case, for over a decade, the religion-state battle was waged largely by left-wing and center-left leaders. During the Netanyahu years, the glue between the political right and ultra-Orthodox became stronger than ever. In his decade in office, Netanyahu has catered to the religious parties so consistently that they’ve become known as his “natural partners.”

Netanyahu’s utter dependence on the ultra-Orthodox parties’ support and his need to hew to many of their politically unpopular positions have proved to be his Achilles’ heel — making him even more vulnerable than his pending corruption indictments have rendered him.

By exploiting that weakness, Lieberman has deftly made himself who he is today — the person who can save Netanyahu. Or, in what seems a more likely scenario, he’s the person who can destroy him.