Yisrael Beiteinu's Undisputed Leader / His Plan Has Worked

Talk of succession - even behind closed doors - at this stage would be tantamount to suicide; the question of a successor may arise during the hearing with Stas Misezhnikov and Fania Kirshenbaum likely to be mentioned.

In August 2009, a day after the police announced they recommended indicting Avigdor Lieberman on charges of bribery, money laundering and obstruction of justice, the foreign minister and Yisrael Beiteinu chair said at his weekly faction meeting that he would resign immediately if charged.

Lieberman used the opportunity to taunt opponents, saying he expected to still be party chairman and foreign minister "two years from now."

Yehuda Weinstein, Yaakov Neeman
Emil Salman

His statements were not uncalculated. Lieberman knew he'd be asked whether he would resign; he knew that if he were to dodge the question it would return, and decided to tackle it early on.

Meanwhile, a year and a half have passed and Lieberman, just as he said, is still party chairman and foreign minister. A pre-indictment hearing could drag on past August, so Lieberman's prophecy is quite likely to be fulfilled.

This is one of the reasons why no succession battles appear to be brewing in Yisrael Beiteinu: Every minister knows that Lieberman does not intend to step down before elections. The calculation is simple - the hearing will last at least six months, with Lieberman and his attorneys dragging it out. This would mean Lieberman could be indicted only in 2012, which most observers agree will be an election year.

Some pundits said yesterday that Lieberman would time his retirement to enable him to lead Yisrael Beiteinu into elections as foreign minister. Lieberman holds the keys to the government's future more than any other cabinet member, and since he has the power to set the date for the next elections, he'll do so at the time most convenient to him.

Meanwhile, no one in Yisrael Beiteinu is talking about succession, not even behind closed doors; mentioning it at this stage would be tantamount to suicide. The question of a successor may arise during the hearing and two names are likely to be mentioned - Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov and party secretary Fania Kirshenbaum. Still, nobody knows which Lieberman will pick, or whether he'd prefer an outsider. The Foreign Ministry portfolio will at any rate return to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, making the successor's position even less appealing.

For now, indictment or no indictment, Lieberman is the undisputed leader of Yisrael Beiteinu. Although he takes care to present a picture of party democracy, he is the one appointing MKs and ministers. This is the reason why leaks from the party's closed forums are so rare. Meanwhile, his plan appears to be working well. The last survey published in Haaretz showed that if elections were to be held today, Yisrael Beiteinu would have received 17 seats, very close to Lieberman's 20-seat target for the next elections.

Although most of its supporters come from the Russian-speaking community, the party has managed to secure several seats from the right-wing electorate at large.