Israeli election: Lieberman challenges Netanyahu’s hold on the right
Avigdor Lieberman’s first taste of democracy came when the Moldovan moved to Israel in 1978, found a job as a nightclub bouncer and threw himself into Israeli politics.
It was the time of the Mahapach, or upheaval, when a new brand of politics reshaped the Jewish state. Just a year earlier Menachem Begin, a survivor of the Soviet gulag who once ran a feared Jewish militia that bombed the headquarters of the British Mandate in Jerusalem, had become the first defiantly rightwing prime minister of a country birthed and led until then by liberal, secular Zionists.
Mr Lieberman watched and learnt, spending the next decades clawing his way from nightclub security to forge a unique political role as the champion of Russian immigrants, bane of the Arabs, toppler of governments and, in a country increasingly in the grip of religious fervour, an unabashed secularist who takes pride in breaking the sabbath.
As Israel prepares to go to the polls on Tuesday for the second general election in a year, Mr Lieberman is attempting his own Mahapach — upending Begin’s legacy by fracturing the Israeli right. The former defence minister is wooing secular security hawks with a vow to blunt the influence that the ultraorthodox minority has wielded over a succession of prime ministers — especially the man who has led Israel since 2009, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Opinion polls show his Yisrael Beiteinu party doubling its presence in the Knesset to at least 10 seats, up from five in April’s election. Such a result could bestow on Mr Lieberman the status of kingmaker in Israeli politics.
It would also give him the power to determine the fate of Mr Netanyahu, who he is challenging for important sections of the rightwing electorate. The Likud leader wants to see the passing of legislation that would give him and other members of the Knesset immunity from prosecution while they are in office. For Mr Netanyahu, failure to win the election could see him fighting a possible indictment on corruption charges from the opposition benches.
“Lieberman is a special phenomenon in Israeli politics — I don’t know if he’s rightwing, or leftwing, but he’s figured out that Israelis are tired of the fight between the right and the left,” says Avraham Diskin, a professor emeritus of politics at Hebrew university, who has watched Mr Lieberman’s ascent. “He’s riding two very strong horses, security and secularism, and those horses can take him very far.”
Despite the passions of an election campaign, Mr Lieberman has been keeping a low profile, refusing requests for interview. Asked earlier this year by the FT to outline his political vision, he described the west as soft and Europe as lost without the guidance of Jewish thinkers, while he compared European efforts to seek a deal with Iran to the appeasement of Hitler in the 1930s.
“They [the west] will never understand us because they have lost their political will and determination,” he said in January. “They have a high standard of life and they are lazy and not ready to fight for their rights, for their future.”
Mr Lieberman has been building up to this challenge to Mr Netanyahu for some time. He set the stage for the election by pulling out of the last government, lambasting the prime minister for not bombing Hamas in Gaza with greater vehemence and then, after April’s inconclusive elections, refusing to join his coalition unless he reined in the ultraorthodox parties.
He represents a potent threat to Mr Netanyahu’s grip over the Israeli right, a group that includes settlers who live in fear of a Palestinian state uprooting them from what they consider their biblical homeland in the occupied West Bank, libertarians who celebrate Israel’s departure from the socialist ideas of its Kibbutznik foundations and, more recently, blatant anti-Arab racists.
In Israel’s fractious coalition politics, it now seems unlikely any government — left, right or centre — could be conceived without Mr Lieberman’s blessing. Some even believe he could be within touching distance of leading the country.
“He was already defence minister, and the next thing he wants is to be prime minister,” says Oded Revivi, the mayor of Efrat, a settlement in the occupied West Bank, where Mr Lieberman, who lives nearby, is wooing voters. “What he found out as minister of defence was that he really didn’t have much power, so he’s come up with this new invention of himself as a secular leader — who knows how long that will last for.”
Mr Lieberman has taken direct aim at the weak spot in Mr Netanyahu’s complex support base — former Likud supporters who embrace a confident Zionism, but reject the intrusion of Jewish fundamentalism into Israeli public life.
These voters chafe at the power of the orthodox Rabbinate, which refuses to recognise the strains of Conservative and Reform Judaism popular outside Israel, and they loathe the ultraorthodox minority, which has used its political acumen to keep their young men from serving in the army.
What Mr Lieberman offers is an alternative vision of what it means to be a rightwing Israeli — belligerent when it comes to defence but paternalistic in public policy.
He has promised to double pensions for recent immigrants — nearly a million Russian-speaking Jews migrated to Israel in the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He has also proposed keeping the shops open on the sabbath and the introduction of civil marriage. The Rabbinate has steadfastly refused to accept the right of many of those migrants to marry in Israel, deeming them insufficiently orthodox and forcing them to wed abroad instead.
Mr Lieberman’s ability to challenge the definition of rightwing has nearly doubled his appeal, reaching beyond his traditional base of Russian-speaking migrants to ten seats, according to the latest polls published Friday.
“What is right — and what is left — it is still being defined in Israel,” says Meir Rubin, executive director at the Kohelet Policy Forum, a conservative think-tank. Until now, he says, “the test in the country for whether you’re rightwing, the question is this: do you want Netanyahu to be prime minister.”
Chaim Silberstein, who migrated to Israel from South Africa in 1980, describes himself as a rational, moral rightwinger, one who wants peace with the Palestinians, but without ceding an inch of the land he believes God gave to the Jews. He made aliyah, the act of claiming Israeli citizenship, to help fulfil those biblical prophecies, and moved straight into Beit El, a settlement close to Ramallah, the de facto Palestinian capital, at a time when settlers were derided as extremists by mainstream Israelis.
“In Israel, you make a political statement when you choose your address,” he says. His location has come with great cost — in December, his pregnant daughter was shot by a Palestinian. She survived; her child did not. The shooting traumatised the settler community — two soldiers had been killed the same week at the same bus stand, and seven others were injured in the attacks.
An admirer of Begin, who championed the idea that Israeli Jews have a god-given right to live anywhere within the “land of Israel” despite international opposition, Mr Silberstein is not sure he will still vote for Mr Netanyahu, Mr Begin’s most successful protégé. Instead, Mr Silberstein says, he often looks to the right of Mr Netanyahu, this time to a new party named Yamina, which translates loosely as Rightward.
He knew Mr Lieberman when they were both students at Hebrew university, and remembers him as disruptive.
“Lieberman is still being a political naughty boy — being disruptive means you can espouse all sorts of ideas that you don’t have to believe in,” he says. “Too many people are whispering into Netanyahu’s left ear, you need more people to whisper in his right ear.”
It is a sentiment shared by many ardent rightwingers, a feeling that Mr Netanyahu isn’t sufficiently rightwing. On two occasions during his four premierships, Mr Netanyahu has worked with leftwing leaders to keep his coalitions afloat, and has often softened his pledges after elections. For instance, while he actively champions settlements, he accepted a nearly eight-year long building freeze in the West Bank demanded by president Barack Obama.
That has splintered the rightwing voting bloc, leaving space for parties such as Yamina, whose charismatic leader Ayelet Shaked, the former justice minister, described her peace plans as “maximum land, minimum Palestinians”.
Mr Lieberman’s voters, many of them Russian immigrants, see him as an iconoclast; his detractors see him as a political opportunist. Either way, he has started to break the bond that until recently wedded rightwing politics to religion. Mr Netanyahu is increasingly trapped in an impossible dilemma — if he softens his embrace of religious parties, he risks their ire, but if he flirts with the often unpalatable extremes, he risks losing voters closer to the centre.
Mr Lieberman’s focus on blunting the influence of ultraorthodox parties is seductive even among some rightwing religious voters, because of widespread consternation that the minority community receives too many favours from the government, including subsidies for their large number of children, and permission to run their own schools within segregated communities, says Mr Diskin, the Hebrew University professor.
“Every Ashkenazi Jew in Israel appears to have forgotten that their great, great, great-grandfather was at one point ultraorthodox,” says Mr Diskin, who described hatred of their lifestyles as “on the edge of anti-Semitism”.
Mr Netanyahu has made a clear choice. Faced with the possibility that a centre-left alliance called the Blue and White, staffed by three former chiefs of the military, could surge ahead, he is pushing hard for votes that might otherwise go to the smaller parties that make up the rightwing bloc such as Yamina.
In recent weeks, Mr Netanyahu has appropriated the shrill narrative of those vulnerable partners, with baseless warnings of Arab Israelis stealing the election with widescale voter fraud, and denouncing Mr Lieberman for not joining him in introducing legislation that would force cameras into voting booths.
Last week, he tried to cement the votes of settlers like Mr Silberstein, vowing to extend Israeli sovereignty to settlements, which are illegal under international law, and to immediately annex the Jordan Valley, a 2,400km swath of the West Bank, a move that would diminish the possibility of a viable, contiguous Palestinian state. But, he warned, he could only do that if settlers and rightwing Israelis propelled him to victory.
“Give me the power to determine the borders of Israel,” he asked voters last week. “Thanks to my path, my political experience and my personal relationship with President Trump and many of the world leaders, I can secure the settlements in the heart of our homeland.”
The incendiary pledge has little appeal to mainstream Israelis, many of who have never even visited the occupied West Bank. It is equally unclear if Mr Netanyahu will win more votes from settlers — some 650,000 of them now live in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and tend to vote either for ultraorthodox parties or smaller rightwing parties including a racist, anti-Arab party called Otzma Yehudit, or Jewish Power.
But it is unlikely that he will lose any settler votes to Mr Lieberman, who has proposed land swaps that would allow for a Palestinian state to absorb Arab Israelis in order to reduce the number of Arabs with Israeli citizenship. That is anathema to religious Zionists, but enticing to secular rightwingers, who view the West Bank as a security issue, not a religious one.
If anything, the settler community is pragmatic, says Mr Revivi, the mayor of Efrat. They understand that they are often used by politicians as a prop.
“When you come to Judea and Samaria [the Jewish name for the West Bank] you can take one photo with the scenery, the people, and you get to say you are rightwing,” says Mr Revivi. “They’ve all come from 1967 till today, saying we are just like Netanyahu.”
But Mr Netanyahu, the longest serving Israeli prime minister, is right on one thing, says Mr Revivi — he praises settlers, and promises to make their homes permanent.
“In the end,” says Mr Revivi, “It’s a nicer and better feeling to engage with those who will hug you publicly, even if he can’t do much for you on the ground.”