Opinion

The Decline and Fall of Putin's Favorite Israeli Politician

Avigdor Lieberman, the bellicose former coalition kingmaker, known for his fulsome praise for Putin, hoped his dramatic resignation as defense minister a month ago would reap him electoral dividends. But his brand of Russian-speaking special-interest politics is going out of style

Yisrael Beiteinu leader with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the latter's visit to Israel in 2012.
Eli Dassa / Ma'ariv

It’s official: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has dissolved his coalition, and Israelis will cast their ballots for the next Knesset in April. Unfortunately for former defense chief Avigdor Lieberman, come election day, few will remember the Yisrael Beiteinu leader’s role in setting in motion the government’s collapse.

Moreover, the Russian-speaking Israeli community, a million-strong demographic of which Lieberman is both a member and until recently a political beneficiary, is moving away from special-interest parties. When the dust settles, Lieberman could be left outside the Knesset, or just barely crossing the threshold.

>> 12 Shocking Headlines From Lieberman’s Bombastic Career in Israeli Politics

In November, Lieberman brought Netanyahu’s coalition down to an untenable single-seat majority after he resigned from both the defense ministry and from the government coalition, triggered by his objections to a ceasefire with Hamas after the latest round of hostilities.

In his resignation, he aimed to cast Netanyahu as soft on terror. But his ove was also inspired by Lieberman’s other, unarticulated consideration: making the secular nationalist party he founded in 1999, Yisrael Beiteinu, relevant again.

Israeli supporters of Avigdor Lieberman and the Yisrael Beiteinu party react after hearing exit poll results at party HQ in Jerusalem. February 10, 2009
REUTERS

Established and long marketed as a political home for Russian-speakers, Lieberman’s aim was to broaden the party's appeal; to present Yisrael Beiteinu as a general-interest party, more authentically right-wing and hawkish than the ruling Likud.

Resigning in protest was always a gamble for Lieberman, and in the short run it appeared to yield results: Some polls placed Yisrael Beiteinu at eight seats, up from its current five. 

But Netanyahu managed to plod along for another month with just 61 seats before he called elections. In that time, rocket fire from Gaza receded (for now) and so have Lieberman’s numbers, with polls forecasting Yisrael Beiteinu with between four and six seats. It's a sharp decline from the 15 seats his party held a decade ago, when Lieberman gained the coveted foreign affairs portfolio. Even the most optimistic polls taken after Lieberman’s resignation show Yisrael Beiteinu performing at about half its peak performance from 2009.

Today, it seems clear that his post-resignation electoral benefits will be minimal: they won't restore his party’s past success, nor stop his particular brand of Russian special-interest politics from going out of style.

A 2015 Russian-language campaign poster for Yisrael Beiteinu appealed to voters: "Russkiye, domoi" ("Russians, come home.") It was a play on the party’s name, which means "Israel is our home," and a direct call  to Lieberman’s primary base: immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

But to Lieberman's disadvantage, it appears Russian Israelis have indeed come home - albeit not to Yisrael Beiteinu. 

What accounts for this crash? An overview of Russian community politics in Israel offers some insight.

After 1989, around a million immigrants from the former U.S.S.R. arrived in Israel. Since then, Yisrael Beiteinu, Natan Sharansky’s former Yisrael Ba’aliyah, and a handful of other smaller factions have filled a unique niche in Israeli politics supporting Russophone voters as a significant minority community.

Israel, in turn, has maintained a special place in Russia’s foreign policy worldview, the Jewish state that features in Moscow’s foreign policy sometimes called the "Near Abroad."

This makes sense, given Russian speakers represent a higher share of the population in Israel than ethnic Russians do in 11 of the 15 republics of the former Soviet Union.

Russian speakers as a percentage of the total population of Israel compared to FSU states
Evan Gottesman

And while the concept of the Near Abroad has been used as a pretext for military aggression in countries like Ukraine and Georgia, Russian soldiers are as unlikely to come ashore in Haifa as they are in Brighton Beach.

Instead, the significant Russophone presence in Israel has helped provide social and cultural common ground in Israel’s relationship with Moscow, which has otherwise been fraught with confrontations and disagreement, not least recently amid the ongoing Russian military intervention in Syria.

As recently as September, Russian Ambassador to Israel Anatoly Viktorov noted, "The fact that a good part of the Israeli population originates from the former Soviet Union and contributes in all fields in Israel – unites both countries very, very closely."

Such comments reflect similar sentiments expressed by other officials, including Vladimir Putin, about the Russia-Israel relationship: in 2009, Putin declared Israel's sizable Russian community as "something that unites us with you like no other country." 

Lieberman and other Yisrael Beiteinu members have reciprocated Moscow’s overtures with their own odd embrace of the Russian government, including on issues like the integrity of Russian elections, the annexation of Crimeasanctions, and possibly supporting pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine. There have been ongoing reports of institutional ties between the party and Kremlin-sponsored organizations.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, left, and Avigdor Lieberman speak during their meeting in the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow. Dec. 7, 2011
AP

Indeed, Lieberman has enjoyed many and varied convivial meetings with Putin during his political career, as well as a range of murky financial dealings with elite Russian officials. He offered such a full thoated endorsement of Putin after the Russian elections of 2011 (they were "were absolutely fair, free and democratic") that his own foreign ministry officials at the time expressed astonishment and concern. Putin has reciprocated,  praising Lieberman's "brilliant political career." 

These positions have sometimes placed Israel at odds with its Western allies. On the domestic front, such baggage is unlikely to endear Lieberman to the broader Israeli public.

By 2012, the decline of the Russophone political space in Israel was enough to merit a brief essay from the Russkiy Mir Foundation, a Russian government-run institution with offices around the world.

Russkiy Mir’s article, "Israel Will Remain Without Russian Parties," proved a bit premature in its analysis, which focused on Yisrael Beiteinu’s decision to run on a joint list with Likud. The party survived its union and divorce with Likud, and even helped bring Netanyahu’s coalition past a bare majority in 2016, earning Lieberman the position of defense minister.

Still, while Russian speakers retained considerable influence in the last national elections, they were spread out across the political map. Taken together, Russophone Israelis’ votes would have translated into about 16 Knesset seats. And while a plurality of Russian-speaking Israelis voted for Yisrael Beiteinu (which saw most of its support come from Russian speakers), a nearly equal number voted for Likud.

Although the community tilts right-wing, it is not exclusively so. About a third of Russian Israelis voted in 2015 for centrist or center-left parties including Kulanu, Yesh Atid, Zionist Union, and Meretz.

Press conference in which Ksenia Svetlova (seated) announced she was joining the Zionist Union, of which the HaTnuah party led by Tzipi Livni (standing) was the part. 18 Jan 2015
\ Moti Milrod

The specific issues Yisrael Beiteinu and its precursors campaigned on, such as nationalism, secularism, religious freedom, and improving relations with Russia and other ex-Soviet states, have been to some extent co-opted by other factions. Younger Russophone politicians like Zionist Union’s Ksenia Svetlova now advocate for national and Russian community issues but from a left-wing angle. 

There is a generational split at play too: older immigrants from the former U.S.S.R. feel more attached to the Soviet Jewish experience, while their children and those who came to Israel at a younger age may feel more Israeli, consuming more Hebrew culture and less (sometimes Kremlin-controlled and pro-Putin) Russian language media than their parents.

In the upcoming election, the fracturing of existing factions on the center-left and right, as well as the entrance of entirely new parties, will leave Russian-speaking voters - and Israeli voters in general - with more non-Lieberman options across the political spectrum.

The simple fact remains that Yisrael Beiteinu’s base is disappearing, and taking the party’s future with it. Those electoral shifts reflect the integration of Russian speakers into the broader fabric of Israeli society.

An overwhelming majority of Russophone Israelis are Jewish, and while they carry their own cultural traditions, there is nothing to prevent them from trading Russian for Hebrew, just as their Yiddish, Arabic, and German-speaking forebears did in Israel’s earlier years. Indeed, many already have. When Israeli secondary schools finally instituted a Russian language matriculation exam in 1999, a full decade had already passed since the post-Cold War Soviet aliyah began.

It’s not just Yisrael Beiteinu’s constituency that has changed. Lieberman and his party are different now too. Not unlike Putin’s United Russia, Yisrael Beiteinu is very much a personal brand centered on its leader.

A demonstrator with a poster reading "criminals" showing Palestinian PM Rami Hamdallah, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman protesting Abbas's UN speech. Rafah, Gaza. September 27, 2018
\ IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/ REUTERS

A big part of that brand is Lieberman’s ultra-nationalist zeal and authoritarian streak, including support for state loyalty oaths and an infamous quip about beheading dissident Palestinian citizens of Israel ("Those who are against us, there's nothing to be done – we need to pick up an ax and cut off his head") - a minority Lieberman views with special contempt.

Today, Lieberman’s ideology can hardly be described as reformed. But in two years as defense minister, Lieberman’s behavior was relatively circumspect (by Lieberman standards) - and, crucially, lacking influence, somewhat diluting his bellicose persona and leverage.

Meanwhile, the party as a whole has lost some of its "Russian" characteristics. Of the six MKs elected on the Yisrael Beiteinu list in 2015, just three were born in the former Soviet Union. Compare that with nine out of 15 in 2009.

Yisrael Beiteinu will likely persist provided Lieberman is willing to lead it, and as long as it can cross the electoral threshold. That's not necessarily a given, and a possible own goal on the part of Lieberman, who advocated raising the threshold in 2015 to obstruct Palestinian-Israeli parties.

The Russian-speaking community in Israel remains a distinct minority, but its potential for continued assimilation means there may come a time when, as Russkiy Mir observed six years ago, the need for a Russian party in Israel is an anachronism.

The name Yisrael Beiteinu - "Israel is our home" - will have become a self-fulfilling prophecy: when Russian speakers truly feel at home in Israel, there will be no political need for Avigdor Lieberman or for his party.

Evan Gottesman is the Associate Director of Policy and Communications at Israel Policy Forum. His work has previously been published by The National Interest, The Diplomat, World Policy Journal, The Jerusalem Post, and ETH Zürich's Center for Security Studies. Twitter: @EvanGottesman