Avigdor Lieberman enters his car after visiting the Western Wall after the verdict in his trial on November 6, 2013 in Jerusalem
© AFP
Avigdor Lieberman enters his car after visiting the Western Wall after the verdict in his trial on November 6, 2013 in Jerusalem
Last updated: May 1, 2014

Lieberman’s downfall

Banner Icon Without a distinct ideology and losing the support of Israel’s ultra-right, the days of Lieberman dominating political headlines and telecasts of Eretz Nehedert may soon be over, argues Aaron Magid.

On the night of the 2009 election, as Avigdor Lieberman’s party jumped to unprecedented power with 15 seats, the popular Israeli satirical show Eretz Nehederet depicted Lieberman ominously.

Both Benjamin Netanyahu and Tzipi Livni huddled around Lieberman begging for his support while Lieberman surrounded by black clad bodyguards shot at Netanyahu’s foot to grab his attention.

"The elections were a marvelous experience and they were also a final experience. There will be no more elections,” Lieberman declared with the audience cheers at his command.

Although fictitious, this prime-time episode of the most influential comedy show highlighted Lieberman’s influence within Israeli society. Nonetheless, in the next Eretz Nehederet election night show, Lieberman will have a much smaller role.

"The elections were a marvelous experience and they were also a final experience"

The rise of Naftali Bennett replacing Lieberman as the leader of the far-right, declining influence of Russian identity politics, and lack of a unique security platform will likely lead to the downfall of Lieberman in the next elections.

Lieberman’s rise to power rested on his outspoken support of Israel’s national honor. When addressing Arab-Israeli Knesset members who supported the Palestinian cause, he called for their execution.A combination of Lieberman’s charisma and defense of Israel’s security interests propelled him to become the leader of Israel’s far right.

Yet, Bennet’s explosion into the political scene has seized Lieberman’s spotlight among hawkish voters. Housing Minister Uri Ariel and Habayit Hayehudi are responsible for a 123% increase in West Bank settlements this past year.

Last week, Israel’s Channel 2 invited Bennett onto its main broadcast to discuss his threatening ultimatum that he will leave the government if Netanyahu releases any Arab-Israeli prisoners.

With Bennet’s own charisma, the party’s deep support among settlers, and the charm of a young and charming Ayelet Shaked, Lieberman will have little chance of maintaining the title of Netanyahu’s main rival from the right wing.

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Even Lieberman has noticed Bennet’s rise and has adapted accordingly. While some politicians attacked Secretary John Kerry for his perceived bias when conducting negotiations, Lieberman rushed to his defense declaring, “John Kerry is a true friend of Israel.”

Lieberman added that he was willing to give up land in a peace deal – an idea reviled by settlers and Habayit Hayehudi supporters. Accordingly, many pundits rushed to characterize Lieberman as a moderate.

Nonetheless, Lieberman has a far way from trying to win over centrist’s voters even discounting his stances before the perceived shift.  After an increase in rocket attacks last month, Lieberman called for the “full reoccupation of Gaza.” On Friday, he blasted EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton in a sarcastic Facebook post claiming that she does not understand the world’s problems.

Furthermore, he has persisted in his plan to transfer land of Israel-Arabs to a Palestinian state - an idea rejected by the overwhelming majority of the international community. Would a centrist Israeli, someone who voted for Yair Lapid in the previous election, really trust Lieberman with the country’s security and diplomatic challenges given his off-the-cuff criticisms of foreign officials, racist remarks about Israel’s Arab citizens and erratic policy changes?

If Lieberman is unable to gain support from centrist voters or Habayit Hayehudi supporters, he could theoretically takeover Likud from within. However, this appears improbable.

Politically savvy, Benjamin Netanyahu has now completed his 8thyear as Prime Minister. When asked which candidate would be most fitting to serve as Prime Minister, a recent poll shows that Netanyahu received four times the amount of votes compared to any potential opponent, with Lieberman only scoring 2%.

Even if Netanyahu would somehow lose support within the party, Lieberman would face other stiff competition. In a March 2014 Channel 2 poll, Minister of Defense Moshe Yaalon (Likud) received the highest ratings for his job performance out of all other government ministers.

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It is important to remember that Lieberman only attained the rank of a corporal in his military service and did not accumulate security expertise during his brief stint in the army – a trait highly valued among Israeli voters.  Yaalon’s popularity along with his strong security credentials after serving as Chief of Staff will make it nearly impossible for Lieberman to emerge head of Likud.

Lieberman’s future political challenges will also be related to the declining identity of Russian-Israelis as a distinct electoral block. Ben Caspit explains: “the heyday of Yisrael-Beitenu as a party for newly arrived Russian immigrants is gone. The massive wave of immigration from Russia has been integrated in the country.”

"Lieberman added that he was willing to give up land in a peace deal"

After living over 20 years in Israel, the younger generation often views itself as more Israeli than Russian so loyalties to Lieberman and Russian based parties have dropped. Given this demographic change, Lieberman must reach out to different political camps in order to maintain political prominence. Yet, with the settlers allying with Bennet and security hawks impressed by Yaalon, and realists staying with Netanyahu, there is little room left for Lieberman.

Some have argued that Lieberman’s supposed turn to the center and his stronger relationship with Secretary Kerry will improve his electoral chances. Yet, no candidate has better ties with the West than Tzipi Livni and current polls show that her party is treading water barely above the new higher electoral threshold for entering the Knesset.

Most importantly, Lieberman has not effectively reached out to Israeli voters. For all his zigzagging in recent months, an April 11 Haaretz poll shows that Israelis on average are more dissatisfied than approve of Lieberman’s performance as Foreign Minister. Additionally, with Israelis increasingly concerned about socio-economic issues and ballooning housing prices, Lieberman is not seen as a leader on social justice matters further hurting his electoral chances. 

In a visit to New York earlier this month, Lieberman addressed a Russian-speaking crowd saying that soon Israel “may have a Russian-speaking Prime Minister.” Although it is unclear if Lieberman was referring to himself, his upcoming political troubles make this seem highly unlikely.

Without a distinct ideology and losing the support of Israel’s ultra-right, the days of Lieberman dominating political headlines and telecasts of Eretz Nehedert may soon be over.

The views expressed are the author's own and do not necessarily represent those of Your Middle East.

Aaron Magid
Aaron is a graduate student at Harvard University in Middle Eastern Studies. His work has appeared in the New Republic, Al-Monitor, and Haaretz.
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