News reports in the wake of the Israeli elections have focused on the new power broker role for a right-wing party run by a newcomer to the world stage, Avigdor Lieberman. Described by the Associated Press as “ultra-nationalist,” Yisrael Beitenu (which means “Israel Our House” in English) is actually not so easy to pin down.
Originally conceived as a party for Russian immigrants, who came to Israel in large numbers starting almost twenty years ago, Yisrael Beitenu has mostly partnered with hawkish parties, including forming an official alliance earlier this decade with a right-wing national religious party.
What likely has prodded the media reports to refer to Lieberman as “ultra-nationalist” is his fiery rhetoric on Israeli Arabs, who make up almost one-fifth of the Jewish state’s population. His call for Israeli-Arabs to sign a loyalty oath has stirred controversy, but also inspired large crowds at many Lieberman political rallies. What was not done during the campaign, though, was any detailing of how such an oath would be worded or enforced, let alone the exact consequences for violating it.
Polling of Yisrael Beitenu supporters in the run-up to the election showed that most of them expected Lieberman to join a Netanyahu-led coalition.
Several of the top names on the party’s list, in fact, are vocal opponents to the Oslo-era model of land-for-peace, at least until Palestinian society fundamentally changes to the point where peace is accepted by the broader public.
Lieberman is not certain to join forces with Netanyahu, however, as it was just less than a year ago that his party was part of the left-of-center Kadima-led government that appeared willing to carve Jerusalem in half, a deeply unpopular position in Israel — and especially unpopular with the voters who cast ballots yesterday for Yisrael Beitenu.
Not found in most of the Western coverage of the election is the pall cast over Yisrael Beitenu by the criminal investigation of Lieberman for possible corruption. Behind closed doors, leading political insiders joke that Lieberman may be looking in negotiations for a “get out of jail free” card. An Israeli who has known Lieberman for over a decade said frankly, “He might actually think that the chances of being prosecuted go down by joining a left-wing coalition.”
In the end, what likely will matter most is the seismic shift that has occurred in the Israeli electorate. Right-of-center parties have gone from holding 50 of the Knesset’s 120 seats to 65 or slightly more, depending on final tallies after counting votes from the sizeable number of soldiers, whose ballots will account for over 5% of the total in this small nation.
The only major candidate who ran overtly on a peace platform, albeit just in the past week or so, was Livni. That shift in message, where she announced in a major speech last week that there was a “window of opportunity” for the “dove of peace,” allowed her to pull peacenik voters to her party, away from smaller left-wing factions. In the end, if you include Arab parties, the left-of-center factions achieved just 45% of the vote.
So even though Livni appears to have won the largest number of seats by a razor-thin margin — 28 to Likud’s 27, at current count — the country overall has clearly moved to the right. If Lieberman were to throw his projected 15 seats behind Livni, he’d be going against not just his own voters, but the Israeli electorate as a whole.
Unless Lieberman extracts incredible concessions from Livni, it is highly unlikely that Kadima will form the new government. This means that barring any major surprises, Netanyahu is poised to return to the Prime Minister’s office he vacated a decade ago.