Analysis

Israel’s Shining Political Superstar Is a Prime Minister Unto Himself

Avigdor Lieberman's party meeting in Tel Aviv hummed with excitement, anticipation and newfound contempt for Netanyahu

Lieberman peeks through the curtains before heading on stage, Tel Aviv Expo, July 30, 2019.
Ofer Vaknin

Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party has taken over first place in the buzz league.

The party’s central committee meeting in Tel Aviv on Tuesday night hummed with excitement and anticipation, in direct contrast to its dreary gatherings a few short months ago before the April 9 election. This time around, the party came together to celebrate, if not to coronate.

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Lieberman’s Russian fans, many of them aficionados of sweeping historical melodramas, came from far and wide to witness the bio-political miracle: The metamorphosis of Lieberman from a sectorial leader who is shackled to the right and hovering near the threshold of political extinction into the ultimate kingmaker, with double digits in the polls, who has also become, hard as it is to digest, the great white hope of the Israeli center-left.

An hour before the show, Lieberman mingled with his admirers like a groom at his wedding, full of himself to the brim, ducking hugs and kisses as best he could but posing generously for selfies, as befits his new stature as a political superstar. Yisrael Beiteinu old timers mingled with new recruits inevitably drawn to Lieberman’s aura of success, like moths to a flame. They approached him with beaming eyes and the undeniable reverence hitherto reserved for Benjamin Netanyahu in Likud or Arye Deri in Shas.

Lieberman greets fans at the party meeting, Tel Aviv Expo, July 30, 2019.
Ofer Vaknin

When Lieberman was introduced to the crowd, accompanied by chants of “Here comes the next prime minister,” the audience burst out in wild applause, as if such a scenario was at all possible. Lieberman’s mercurial and totally unforeseen moves in the past few months, which include sabotaging Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition and veering sharply to the center, has made them believe that anything is possible.

A stranger who might have happened on the festive meeting would be hard put to place Lieberman and his acolytes on any conventional political spectrum. His hawkish statements on security as well as the free market jargon on the lips of his accepted deputy, Oded Forer, put Lieberman on the hard, capitalist right. But his demand for a social safety net for immigrants from the former Soviet Union – and everyone else, if there’s no other choice – is classic social democracy. And his newfound enmity to the ultra-Orthodox and religious coercion cast Lieberman as the current standard bearer for the secular center.

When Lieberman announced that his ultimate goal is a “national unity government” – exclusively comprised of Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu and Benny Gantz’s centrist Kahol Lavan - he attached the adjective “liberal.” Avigdor Lieberman, believe it or not, is now the self-styled face of Israeli liberalism. John Locke, the 17th century physician-philosopher who is considered the founding father of the genre, must be turning in his grave.

There was no room for confusion, however, about the party’s innovative rallying cry. Its’ nemeses are no longer the perfidious left or traitorous Arabs, Lieberman’s hitherto obligatory punching bags. On Tuesday night, Lieberman’s enemies of bygone days merited only faint, noblesse oblige reproof. The man most maligned in the former defense minister’s long-winded speech and in the two-minute snippets allotted to his underlings, was none other than Netanyahu, Lieberman’s former boss, blood brother and comrade in harms.

Lieberman and his deputies gleefully slammed Netanyahu, who has so far devoted his election campaign to efforts to erode support for Yisrael Beiteinu in its Russian-speaking base. They did so with gusto and relish, like teenagers suddenly free to speak their true mind about their elders. Netanyahu is a liar, distorter and inciter, they said, but worst of all – he is a leftist in drag. The crowd, who until recently seemed to be swearing by Netanyahu’s name, burst out in appreciative applause.

Lieberman greets Druze leaders at the party meeting, Tel Aviv Expo, July 30, 2019.
Ofer Vaknin

If right-wingers believed that Lieberman’s recent sabotage of yet another Netanyahu-led narrow-right government would tarnish his name among supposedly ultra-nationalist Russians, they’ve got another think coming. “Who is Netanyahu?” asked Yevgeny from Ashdod who, like many Yisrael Beiteinu supporters, refused to divulge his family name. “We’ve got Lieberman,” he replied, with a triumphant gleam in his eyes.

And what a Lieberman it is: Not the one seen before the last election as a too-clever-by-half conniver trying to flog a dead Russian horse, but the daring maverick who’s got the political arena wrapped around his little finger. Not the insular politician who has never shown great appetite for taking on Israel’s religious establishment, but Lieberman the freedom fighter who will liberate secular Russians in particular, and Israeli society in general, from the shackles of “extremist Haredim,” as they were dubbed.

Lieberman’s willingness to defy expectations, confound Netanyahu and thumb his nose at his former allies on the right have marked him as the “strongman” that many Russians, as well as many Israelis, dream about at night.

Lieberman cleverly stipulates that Yisrael Beiteinu will demand the relatively thankless health and interior portfolios in any future coalition. He ventures even further into uncharted waters by consigning the Health Ministry not to a traditional party hack but to the widely respected anesthesiologist Leonid Eidelman, former chairman of the Israeli Medical Association. Lieberman’s shock commitment to appointing a minister who actually knows something about his portfolio is probably the brainwork of a clever campaign strategist. Even in terms of gimmicks, Lieberman seems to have moved to higher ground.

The invitation for press coverage of the event said that in the central committee meeting, Yisrael Beiteinu’s list of candidates for the Knesset would be “approved and presented,” in this order. It may have been a Freudian slip, but one which reflected reality: First Lieberman approves the list – which hasn’t changed from the last election. Then he presents the list to his party members, who dutifully applaud and raise their hands without delving too much into the details. Lieberman’s concept of internal democracy is often slammed by his critics, but there is no denying that his current lineup – which includes the articulate former Israeli ambassador Eli Avidar - is a vast improvement over his past lists, which used to be known as “Lieberman and the dwarves.”

Lieberman speaks at the party meeting, Tel Aviv, July 30, 2019.
Ofer Vaknin

Although the meeting was conducted in Hebrew, the lingua franca among most of the party activists was Russian – as was their attire. Contrary to the conventional jeans and T-shirt attire seen in other party gatherings, Lieberman’s male audience sported ironed pants and buttoned white shirts, despite the stifling heat.

They conjured visions of Israel’s founding party Mapai in its grand old days of yore, when lofty proclamations were uttered in heavily accented Hebrew from the podium, but Polish and Russian dominated the far more crucial back-room wheeling and dealing.

The women, who were in the minority but not embarrassingly so, split into two distinct groups: The older ones, who sported the flowery custom-tailored dresses they last wore at their first cousin’s wedding, and the younger, made up to perfection and dressed to kill, who looked as if they were attending a haute couture fashion show in Paris.

After Lieberman’s overly laborious speech, which included a never-ending list of achievements that observers describe as bogus, his fans affirmed the party’s list and left the auditorium with the same buzz they came in with. With a reinvented Lieberman, they believe, the sky is the limit.

On my way to the exit, I walked behind three elderly Russian speakers, who I decided to interview at the last minute about their reactions. I confronted them no more than 50 feet from the hall where the party meeting was held. They looked at me suspiciously, refused to answer my questions and even denied they were there for the meeting, even though it was the only event taking place in Tel Aviv’s vast Expo exhibition grounds. “What is Yisrael Beiteinu?" one asked me, without blinking.

Which only goes to show that with all due respect to their enthusiasm for the new Lieberman, the legacy of old Russia is forever etched in their minds.