Lieberman's Long and Winding Road to the Political Center

Yisrael Beiteinu chairman MK Avigor Lieberman says an election campaign is like a marathon - you have to divide up your strength the right way.

According to Lieberman, his adversary, Likud chairman MK Benjamin Netanyahu, has burst to the finish much too early. By the tone of Lieberman's voice it seems he doesn't think this is good advice, although he does not seem sorry Netanyahu is taking it.

Yisrael Beiteinu is pacing itself in the election, its messages spread modularly over precisely nine weeks. Its target audience has changed greatly since the 2006 elections. Then, the party hoped its voters would be two-thirds Russian-speakers and one-third native-born Israelis; now, the declared goal is half and half. In order to become the ruling party, the party has to extricate itself from its immigrant image while not losing its power base as "the only Russian party."

Lieberman recently gave an extensive interview to a Russian-language newspaper on "the glass ceiling," a major issue among young, Russian-speaking Israelis and not one he brings up often. He chose it also because Netanyahu realizes it is important to Russian-speaking voters. The 'ceiling' was to be Netanyahu's main issue for the Russian-speakers. Lieberman beat him to it.

Lieberman has no doubt that these elections are about governance. "The country needs a manager who can make order," he says. Lieberman, of course, believes he is the man, which was the party's message in the municipal elections.

The party's network for the municipal elections will be Lieberman's power base for the Knesset elections. No Yisrael Beiteinu candidate took a mayoralty, but their representatives did increase their hold on the grass roots. This is the group, Lieberman expects, that will follow him to the national arena.

Lieberman believes that his ideas, from exchanges of land and population to changes in the system of government, are widely supported, and all he has to do is persuade the public of their practicality. "In terms of legitimacy, we are in an entirely different place than the last elections. We have Itzhak Aharonovich and Danny Ayalon," Lieberman says, referring to the former police deputy commissioner and former ambassador to the United States, respectively. He also noted Uzi Landau, whom he says is very popular among the immigrants. But Landau also brings another asset, roots in the national camp, the same way Orly Levy, David Levy's daughter, symbolizes the proud second-generation Israelis whose parents were underprivileged Mizrahim. Both neutralize Yisrael Beiteinu's image as an immigrant party without roots in Israeli society.

It is still unclear how the party will position itself vis-a-vis Likud. Lieberman used to say of himself, "to my right, there's only the wall." But after the Likud primary, MK Ahmed Tibi said the same thing about Likud. Now, Yisrael Beiteinu says its niche is pragmatism. Without coming out and saying it, Lieberman will market himself as an alternative to Ariel Sharon's pragmatism.