Meet Israel’s New Kingmaker

Avigdor Lieberman could determine whether Benjamin Netanyahu gets another term. What does he want?   

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman in Berlin on June 30, 2014.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman in Berlin on June 30, 2014. ullstein bild via Getty Images

Political makeovers are common in Israel. But Avigdor Lieberman seems to have struck gold with his.

The 61-year-old politician was for decades a fixture of the Israeli right wing and an ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. An immigrant from the former Soviet Union, he crafted an image as a hard-line hawk and ultranationalist.

But in this election cycle—the country’s second in six months—Lieberman has rebranded himself as a champion of secular Israel and a bulwark against the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, community, whose representatives in politics have long dominated religion-and-state policy issues.

That positioning has helped his Yisrael Beiteinu party appeal to people beyond its traditional constituency of Russian-speaking Israelis, including centrist and even left-leaning voters.

If opinion polls prove accurate, it will likely make Lieberman the kingmaker once the votes are counted next month—allowing him to determine whether Netanyahu gets another term as prime minister.

Lieberman has said he opposes the formation of a narrow right-wing and religious coalition, the kind favored by Netanyahu (and by Lieberman himself in the past). The two men have traded barbs in the run-up to the Sept. 17 vote, in what has become the fiercest rivalry of the election.

But some analysts believe what Lieberman really wants is to be prime minister himself—and that he’s discovered a political message which could nudge him closer to that goal.

“We are against religious coercion,” Lieberman said at a recent election event to a crowd of secular Israelis in a Tel Aviv suburb. “We believe in live and let live.”

Lieberman’s transformation began after the last vote, in April, when despite a comfortable majority for the right-wing and religious parties, he refused to enter Netanyahu’s coalition. He complained that Netanyahu had been too deferential to Haredi political parties on draft exemptions for ultra-Orthodox seminary students—a lighting-rod issue in a country with mandatory conscription for 18-year-olds. Short of a parliamentary majority and fearing another lawmaker would be successful at forming coalition, Netanyahu arranged to dissolve the new parliament in May and called a new election.

Ever since, Lieberman has railed against Netanyahu’s alliance with Haredi parties—the prime minister famously refers to them as his “natural” partners. His campaign ads warn that Israel is becoming a religious state and accuse Netanyahu of offering perks to ultra-Orthodox politicians instead of spending money on social welfare, transportation, infrastructure, and health care.

In Israel, ultra-Orthodox rabbinic councils dictate policy over large segments of personal life, including marriage, divorce, Jewish conversion, dietary laws, and public services on the Jewish sabbath. That spurs bitterness with secular Israelis, among them hundreds of thousands of Russian speakers whom the rabbinic establishment doesn’t recognize as Jewish.

Though Lieberman has refrained from attacking Netanyahu over his looming corruption charges—the former government minister faced down his own graft case some years ago—he has exploited his political vulnerability, saying he would support any lawmaker who could form a broad secular coalition for the next government. The remark has been perceived as an invitation to Blue and White, the leading opposition party, as well as rebel politicians within Netanyahu’s Likud party waiting to succeed him.

The message has paid off. A survey released Aug. 15 by Israel’s Channel 13 predicted Lieberman’s party would get 11 seats in the 120-member parliament, up from the five it won in April. Netanyahu’s block of right-wing and religious parties would get 56 seats, well short of the minimum 61 majority. The center-left parties (including the Arab-dominated ones) would command 53 seats.

“[Lieberman] is banking on two things: anti-Bibi sentiment and anti-Haredi sentiment,” said Danny Ayalon, a former parliament member from Lieberman’s party, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname. “He has an uncanny ability to gauge public opinion at any given time. That’s how he can reinvent himself every election.”

Netanyahu has responded by attacking Lieberman as a “leftist” and has held several high-profile events to court Russian-speaking voters. Meanwhile, the leader of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, has accused Lieberman of inciting against religious Jews and the Torah.

A native of what is now Moldova, Lieberman was Netanyahu’s political gatekeeper when the Israeli prime minister first rose to power in the 1990s. He broke with Likud to establish an independent party, Yisrael Beiteinu (“Israel Is Our Home”), tapping into a constituency of 1 million Russian-speaking immigrants. In the 2013 election, Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu ran jointly, underperformed, and eventually went their separate ways.

Lieberman is known for some provocative positions. A decade ago, he stumped on a platform to strip the citizenship of Arab citizens deemed disloyal. And a few years ago, he threatened to assassinate a top Hamas leader and bomb Egypt.

By refocusing his message from the divide over the occupied Palestinian territories to the country’s bitter fight over religion and state, Lieberman is appealing to Israelis in the political center and left—in addition to the secular right wing.

“Lieberman is much closer to the left and the center than the natural partners of Netanyahu’s government,” said Gayil Talshir, a political science lecturer at Hebrew University. “From that perspective, he has changed the ideological axis on which the Israeli election is being fought.”

The move has also exposed an overlooked rift on the Israeli right: Despite their nationalism, a large number of right-wing voters do not share the Jewish fundamentalism of the parties in Netanyahu’s coalition.

And despite his antipathy toward Palestinians, Lieberman doesn’t share the territorial hawkishness of Israel’s religious Zionists. When it looked like Israel was headed toward a peace deal with the Palestinians in the middle of the last decade, Lieberman stirred controversy by calling for the redrawing the West Bank border to cede Israeli Arab towns to a Palestinian state and annex Jewish settlers. The position reflected a worldview that goes back to his roots in the Soviet Union.

“Most of the Jews from the former Soviet Union are very secular. For him, loyalty to the state is very important. The Haredim don’t serve in the army, so they’re not good nationalists—and they want to impinge on [immigrants’] lifestyles,” said Jonathan Rynhold, a professor of political science at Bar Ilan University in Israel.

“He comes out of Central Europe, and anyone from that part of the world looks at what happened after World War II. His experience is that different ethnicities don’t get along.”

Part of Lieberman’s campaign is motivated by bad blood with Netanyahu for all his years playing second fiddle to the Israeli prime minister, experts said. Lieberman is a master of political brinkmanship and enjoys making Netanyahu sweat, said Natan Sachs, the director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

“He’s the maverick of Israeli politics,” he said. “He’s the one that thrives amid political chaos, and he’s the best situated to play both sides off against each other.”

But many observers believe that Lieberman could ultimately relent and take part in a coalition with the ultra-Orthodox—if it gets him closer to his goal of being prime minister.

That’s because he is far from an anti-clerical ideologue, former colleagues and experts say. Last year, he supported a candidate for Jerusalem mayor backed by the ultra-Orthodox rather than a secular candidate. And for years, he has sat in right-wing governments alongside the ultra-Orthodox parties.

“He wants everyone to think he’s fierce like a Russian bear, but many people say he’s like a chameleon. He banks on the short memory of the public,” Ayalon, the former lawmaker, said. “He’s still very enigmatic. Anything with him is possible.”

Correction, Aug. 23, 2019: A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed a quote to Natan Sachs, the director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. The updated version makes clear the remarks were made by Jonathan Rynhold, a professor of political science at Bar Ilan University in Israel. 

Joshua Mitnick is a journalist based in Tel Aviv. Twitter: @joshmitnick