Lieberman Could Become Israel’s Most Powerful Figure

Months ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was unable to reach a successful conclusion with the Union of Right-Wing Parties and avoid a general election. A senior Likud official told Channel 13 that if he can form a coalition, the Prime Minister would have no choice but to surrender to this centre-right party’s demand to make their number two, Bezalel Smotrich, Justice Minister. Instead, a vote will be held on September 17th. But given that the Knesset’s makeup may be about to change again, the power to determine Netanyahu’s fate could well belong to the right.

Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports on six election sideshows that will determine the current Prime Minister’s situation. One of them is his ability to win over the Russian vote and he has deployed many tactics to ensure this happens. Netanyahu will attempt to impress the recently-arrived immigrant community from the former Soviet Union to prevent former defense minister Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu party from capitalising on the latter’s Russian base. This is why the Prime Minister has given interviews to the Russian-Israeli media, met new immigrants arriving from the Ukraine and put on the side of his Likud party’s headquarters in Tel Aviv a giant banner of him and Russian President Vladimir Putin together.

But Haaretz suggests these tactics are failing. The latest opinion polls indicate Likud is losing support and Yisrael Beiteinu has doubled its tally of projected seats in the 120-seat Knesset. In every campaign since 2015, Likud’s strategists have known from their focus groups that their biggest obstacle is ‘Bibi fatigue.’ Numerous Likud voters are not bothered if someone else becomes prime minister or refuse to believe Netanyahu can win anyway. Can the party scare these electors with the prospect of a left-wing government supported by ‘droves of Arabs?’

This strategy ensured Likud voters arrived at the polls in the final hours before voting in the past, but can it work for a third time? It is unlikely, as Lieberman stated he is happy to see Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party form a government. Therefore, the Yisrael Beiteinu leader could soon become the most powerful figure in Israeli politics.

This man’s rise to prominence is incredible. After forming Yisrael Beiteinu in 1999, Lieberman has risen to power since, with his party winning four seats in the election that year. He served as minister for national infrastructure (2001-02) in Ariel Sharon’s first government and was promoted to transport minister (2003-04) when his former boss was re-elected.

In October 2006, Ehud Olmert brought Lieberman, whose party won 11 seats during the election that year, into his new coalition as minister for strategic threats, although he resigned in 2008 over the US-led Annapolis process that led to an agreement over the creation of a Palestinian state. During the 2009 election, Yisrael Beiteinu won 15 seats and their leader joined Netanyahu’s government as foreign minister. However, he had to resign in 2012 due to corruption charges. He was acquitted in 2013 and returned to his original post the same year. In 2015, Lieberman resigned and refused to join the Likud-led government that year, but changed his mind in 2016 when he became defense minister.

In the midst of a fresh election, the Jerusalem Post reports that Likud and Blue and White have lost votes and are tied at 30 seats each. Their poll shows that right-wing parties are likely to win 42 seats and will have 57 once they form a coalition with religious parties, but this is still not enough to form a government. The centre-left parties may win 42 seats, but even if they add 11 from the Joint Arab List for a total of 53, they would not pass the 61-seat threshold necessary to form a government. Lieberman’s anticipated 10 votes would bring either bloc over the required number needed to form a governing coalition.

Lieberman’s journey to power since 1999 is remarkable. Yet two questions remain: which bloc will have the largest number of seats and which one will Yisrael Beiteinu form a coalition with? It seems Israel’s fate will be determined by 10 possible votes. This is an election where every vote truly counts, and the world watches with baited breath.