Israel elects new right-wing power broker

tel aviv | Avigdor Lieberman, a stern-mannered immigrant from Moldova, has become the new face of the Israeli right.

Lieberman’s party, Yisrael Beiteinu, became the fourth-largest party in Israeli politics this week, winning seats in the next Knesset from a strong base of Russian-speaking voters as well as tens of thousands of veteran Israelis.

“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,” Lieberman declared Tuesday night, March 28.

Those values Lieberman refers to include one of the pillars of his campaign: a snap answer to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the form of redrawing Israel’s map so that many Israeli Arab towns and villages become part of the West Bank and large Jewish settlements can be annexed to Israel.

The plan has been condemned, among others, by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon when it was first suggested two years ago.

Lieberman, whose party holds three seats in the current Knesset, also campaigned on a social agenda that appealed to many in the Russian-speaking community, speaking of jobs and welfare and highlighting plans to fight crime.

When Lieberman launched his campaign with the help of American political consultant Arthur Finklestein, he looked for ways to distinguish himself from other parties — specifically Kadima and Likud — and the land-swap concept was put on the platform, his advisers said.

Before the elections, Ehud Olmert, then interim prime minister, said he would not include Lieberman’s party in a coalition. But with Kadima’s win of only 28 seats, the door could be open for a possible deal.

Lieberman, however, is firmly against any further unilateral withdrawals from the West Bank. He says Israel should not leave territory without getting something in return.

Lieberman himself lives in the West Bank settlement of Nokdim, a settlement that is in danger of being evacuated should Olmert carry out his plan for future withdrawals from the West Bank.

Lieberman, 48, immigrated to Israel in 1978 and became active in politics as a student at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where he was a Likud activist.

He rose to prominence as Benjamin Netanyahu’s top aide during his term as prime minister.

After infighting with what are commonly called the “Likud princes” — the sons and daughters of the party’s ruling elite — he left the party in 1999 to form Yisrael Beiteinu, Hebrew for “Israel is our Home,” aimed at the Russian electorate.

Vengeance is now his. Likud won only 11 seats in the election.

Yuri Stern, a member of Yisrael Beiteinu, was pleased to see his party overtake 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,” he told reporters.

Analysts say voters were drawn to Lieberman for different reasons. The Russian-speaking supporters, which polls said accounted for roughly eight of his 12 seats, in part see him as their advocate.

They also see in him the image of a strong, security-focused leader similar to the mold of Sharon. Many Russian voters who had planned to vote for Kadima because they admired Sharon jumped to Lieberman’s party after the prime minister fell into a coma in early January, according to analysts.

The veteran Israelis who voted for him were drawn in part from the pool of disillusioned right-wing voters who formerly supported Likud.

Shai Fux, 28, an Israeli-born high-tech worker from Haifa, said he decided to vote for Lieberman’s party not just for his security positions but his civic ones.

“His plan to fight crime suited me. Also, because he is an immigrant from Russia he is aware of their issues, such as civil marriage,” he said, referring to the concern of many immigrants and other Israelis that the country only recognizes marriages in Israel performed by Orthodox authorities.

Fux does not think Lieberman will have the power to carry through his plan to redraw Israel’s boundaries.

The plan, dismissed as untenable and even racist by some Israelis, nonetheless resonated among supporters weary of the conflict and eager for what his campaign billed as a “logical solution” to Israel’s demographic future.