Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman, whose party gained eight Knesset seats (with 98 percent of the vote counted) in Tuesday's election, owes this achievement to his new supporters, who hadn't dream of voting for him in previous elections.
In recent years, Yisrael Beiteinu suffered a sharp drop in voter turnout. At its height, in 2009, it gained 15 Knesset seats. In 2013, after merging with Likud, it garnered 11 seats. In the 2015 election it dropped to six seats, and in the April election it received merely five seats.
In the central city Modi’in, in which 42 percent of the vote went to Benny Gantz's Kahol Lavan in the last two elections, only 774 people voted for Lieberman in April. This time around, 2,564 people voted for him. In Tel Aviv, the trend was similar — In April Lieberman got 3,687 votes, 1.38 percent of the valid votes, while on Tuesday more than 11,500 people cast their ballot for Lieberman, constituting 4.43 percent of the total vote.
This happened, of course, due to his obstinate refusal to join a government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in April, a move which gave him the power to be the one tipping the scales, making him as the ultimate kingmaker who could take down Netanyahu.
Rani Friedman, a Tel Aviv resident, stood for seven whole minutes behind the divider at a polling station before taking a deep breath and casting his vote for Yisrael Beiteinu.
“It was hard”, the 33-year old told Haaretz on Thursday. “I know who Lieberman is. His party did everything possible to harm the public. But this is where Netanyahu has brought us to, it’s that bad.” Two of Friedman’s family members also considered voting for Yisrael Beiteinu, but eventually decided to vote for a leftist party.
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Friedman also usually votes for center-left parties. “I’m somewhere in the center, somewhat leaning to the left, a liberal. I’m against religious coercion and annexation,” he said. In the April election, he voted for Kahol Lavan. In the 2015 election he voted for the Zionist Union.
“I wanted to prevent a disastrous government of Netanyahu and the extremists,” says Friedman. He believes his choice paid off. “From my point of view, we won. Once Netanyahu failed to secure the required 61-seat majority for forming a government, his hourglass started emptying. It’s just a matter of time," Friedman said.
Eyal Rossman, who resides in a Tel Aviv suburb, also voted for Kahol Lavan in April, but went with Lieberman on Tuesday. “There isn't any leader I can get behind. Maybe Gantz will prove himself, but I fear of new people [entering politics]. The fact that he was the IDF chief of staff doesn't prove anything."
Friedman also describes a similar feeling. “I don’t really feel there’s a party I’m proud of voting for. I never went to the polling station feeling that I’m voting for someone whom I’d follow come hell or high water, as opposed to Netanyahu's supporters. In April, in order to defeat Bibi, I swallowed the bitter pill and voted for Kahol Lavan. But when the option to vote for Lieberman presented itself, the choice was easy.”
Friedman added that if Kahol Lavan's No. 2 Yair Lapid would have renounced the rotation agreement for prime minister with Gantz. But that didn't happen, and Lieberman got another vote in Tel Aviv.
The official pretext Lieberman used in refusing to join a Netanyahu government, which ultimately led to the dissolution of the 21st Knesset, was the draft bill. The Yisrael Beiteinu chairman adopted an uncompromising stance on the issue. “We’re against a state governed by Jewish law, we believe in live and let live,” Lieberman said at the height of failed attempts to form a coalition after the April election. “The draft bill became a symbol, and we won’t relinquish our symbols.”
His combative did the trick. “Finally, we have a politician who does what he says he’ll do,” says Shachar Yentel, 28, from the central city of Ramat Gan. “Lieberman didn’t budge on the draft bill, and I respect that.”
The main goal of most of Lieberman’s new supporters is to replace Netanyahu, even by a man who was also suspected of criminal offences.
Over two decades, Lieberman was suspected of having ties to organized crime in the former Soviet Union, bribery, fraud, breach of trust and money laundering of millions of shekels. All the cases against him were closed for lack of evidence, always after prolonged delays, including the business-dealings case that spanned continents and tax havens.
The main case against him revolved around a company that was registered on his daughter's name. Lieberman was suspected of infusing millions of shekels into the company, and using the money to fund his business activity while serving in public positions. Two other companies were registered on the name of his chauffeur and confidant. In 2012, then-Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein decided to close those cases. In another case, Lieberman was suspected of promoting the appointment of Ze'ev Ben Aryeh as Israel’s ambassador to Belarus, while hiding the fact that Ben Aryeh had leaked him information about his criminal investigations. An indictment was submitted but ended in a unanimous acquittal.