No Longer Just an Immigrant Leader, Lieberman Eyes Government

Yisrael Beiteinu chief says the great achievement the national unity the party managed to forge.

"The party's values are becoming Israel's values, and this is just the beginning. I'm sure that next time we will be the governing party," Yisrael Beiteinu chair Avigdor Lieberman said Tuesday night, upon arriving at the Jerusalem Gate Hotel ballroom where hundreds of chanting supporters awaited him, along with reporters from around the world.

Lieberman declared that the great achievement from his standpoint is the national unity that Yisrael Beiteinu managed to forge in connecting immigrants and veteran Israelis, religious and secular voters, settlers and Tel Aviv residents. Regarding the future coalition, Lieberman said that decisions must wait for the moves in the political arena.

"We are open to all offers, but will not forfeit our principles," he told supporters. But the prevailing sense among all Yisrael Beiteinu candidates is that the party should join the coalition.

Two hours before Lieberman arrived, when the exit polls were broadcast, the word "history" could be heard in the hotel ballroom. At 10 P.M. the various Israeli television channels reported that Yisrael Beiteinu had received between 12 and 14 Knesset seats.

According to a poll of Russian-speakers, Lieberman received eight seats from that electorate, and the rest (between four and six seats) from veteran Israelis. This means that Lieberman succeeded in realizing the two main goals he had set for himself: to obtain a double-digit result and to get at least a third of his votes from veteran Israelis, rather than the Russian immigrant community.

The breakdown of votes is particularly significant because it turns Lieberman from "an immigrants' leader" into a public-wide leader, who cannot be ignored in forming the coalition.

But the party's vote breakdown has a significance far beyond Lieberman's goals. Both publics - Russian-speakers and veteran Israelis - voted for Lieberman for completely different reasons. Immigrants from the CIS did not necessarily support him for his agenda, but because they see him as a community leader, who for many symbolizes the Israeli embodiment of the American dream - the bar bouncer who became a minister and leader in Israel.

Above all, it would be a relocation of the support of "the big bulldozer" (Ariel Sharon) to "the little bulldozer," Lieberman. The support from veteran Israelis, by contrast, is an endorsement of Lieberman's rightist agenda, and attests to a systemic crumbling in the political arena.

No. 2 on the list, MK Yuri Stern, reflected these notions in commenting on the exit polls, which gave the party more seats than Likud. "This means that the old politics and the old elites have failed. The new elite is the immigrants we represent, and the technocratic public who became fed up with the failed running of the country came with us."

Despite the flattering polls that labeled him "the surprise of the elections," Lieberman appeared extremely tense throughout Election Day. The expectations put on his party and the foreign journalists hounding him as the "hot" story, only increased the tension. He gave interviews in Hebrew, English and Russian, and was careful to maintain a cautious optimism, but did not hide his intention to join the coalition.

"We are the most Israeli party around," he declared on Estonian television; even our list reflects the three principles of Zionism - immigration to Israel, defending the country and settlement. Like every party, we strive to take part in the government."

Lieberman was accompanied on his tour of campaign branches and polling stations by his married and newly-religious daughter, Michal Lieberman. In contrast to her father, who said there was nothing left to do on Election Day itself, the 23-year-old student of history and Slavic studies thought there was: to pray.