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Liberman’s secular campaign turns him into kingmaker

Many right and center-left voters liked what Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Liberman offered them in the last election campaign: a secular unity government that would end religious coercion.
Avigdor Lieberman, leader of Yisrael Beitenu party, delivers a statement following his party faction meeting, near Neve Ilan, Israel September 22, 2019. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun - RC12484A8A10

A little over 173,000 people voted for Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party in April, giving it five Knesset seats. In September, the number of people who voted for the party shot up to 310,000. So, after just 3½ months of campaigning, it gained 137,000 new voters and grew to eight seats. These eight seats make it impossible for either bloc — right or left — to form a narrow majority government. That's why, on Oct. 3, the very day that the new Knesset was sworn in, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu initiated a meeting with Liberman. He wanted to convince the Yisrael Beitenu leader to join the new government that he was trying to form. At some point, Netanyahu was practically pleading.

What brought Yisrael Beitenu to this position of power, and to such a sharp rise in the number of voters? It seems like Liberman succeeded in selling voters on his formula for change, specifically in matters of religion and state. That is something that most people support, particularly in the political center. What Liberman also offered them was a realistic way to make it happen. He proposed bringing two main parties — the Likud and Blue and White — together, given that there are so few ideological differences between them. Doing this would seem to be the most natural thing in the world. The problem is that the Blue and White party rejects Netanyahu, because of his pending criminal cases, while the Likud insists on bringing its right-wing, ultra-Orthodox bloc along with it.

An analysis of voting patterns finds that Yisrael Beitenu drew most of its new votes from the Likud — including from former supporters of Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party and Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut party, both of which merged with the Likud — as well as from the Blue and White party. The latter is supported by secular centrists and members of the upper middle classes in search of change.

Data shows that Yisrael Beitenu increased its strength significantly in the cities of central Israel, which are normally bastions of the Blue and White party. It won these votes at the expense of the Likud, but also from among people who voted for Blue and White last April. So, for instance, in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Yisrael Beitenu shot up from 1.38% of the total number of votes cast in April to 4.4% in September. At the same time, Blue and White dropped from about 45% of all votes in Tel Aviv-Jaffa to approximately 42% during the same time.

This trend was clearly apparent in other, smaller towns in the center of Israel. In Givatayim, the number of people voting for Liberman increased by 552%, while in Ra’anana, Liberman’s support increased by 417%, and in Hod HaSharon by 385%. The same trend could be seen in other cities throughout Israel, where the middle class wanted change. Liberman brought these voters the message that change is possible, with the same secular messages that have been bestsellers since the days of Yair Lapid’s father, Tommy Lapid, who headed a center party called Shinui. Liberman called for a change to the status quo on matters of religion and state and laid out a path to achieve this, i.e., a unity government without the ultra-Orthodox or the ultra-Orthodox nationalists.

That’s how Liberman was talking at the start of his campaign in June-July, and that's how he is still talking today. He wants to see a new government made up of the Likud, Blue and White, and his Yisrael Beitenu party only, thereby forcing Netanyahu to sever his sacred alliance with the ultra-Orthodox. In this way, Liberman could advance the changes that he promised. When, about two weeks before the election, the Blue and White party realized that Liberman is stealing many of their votes because of this position, they also started talking about a secular, liberal government. Liberman now claims that this was why he did not have an even bigger victory.

Supporters of Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, who were concerned by Benny Gantz’s political flirtations with the ultra-Orthodox, found a safe home for Israeli secularism in Liberman’s party. Knesset member Oded Forer of Yisrael Beitenu told Al-Monitor, “[They wanted] someone who would block the rapacious appetite of the ultra-Orthodox.”

Forer has no doubt that it was Yisrael Beitenu’s focus on religion and state, set against the backdrop of the party’s refusal to join Netanyahu’s coalition last April because of the Conscription Law, which was the main impetus behind the party’s success. He said that most of the party’s new voters supported it because it established itself in their minds as a kind of middle ground with a message of unity, and as a party capable of solving problems of religion and state, such as public transportation on the Sabbath, conversion, the Conscription Law, and so on.

Forer noted that Yisrael Beitenu also managed to increase its Russian base, despite efforts by the Likud to hurt Liberman. And in fact, an analysis by the Globes newspaper of voting data from places with a significant Russian-speaking population found that Yisrael Beitenu won at least one more seat from immigrants from Russian-speaking countries and their families.

Forer noted that Yisrael Beitenu also got a boost from the demands that the ultra-Orthodox parties made of Netanyahu after last April’s election. He said that these show that the prime minister “totally sold himself to win their support.” Forer added that the second generation of immigrants, who came here when they were very young or who were actually born in Israel, are now suffering because of the Chief Rabbinate, which is forcing them to prove that they are Jewish in order to get married. This is especially insulting to them, given that they fought so hard to preserve their Jewish identities under the Soviet regime.

Liberman also increased his strength at the expense of the Likud. The Globes analysis shows that in Likud strongholds like periphery towns, the decline in votes for the Likud paralleled the rise in support for Yisrael Beitenu. In the southern town of Sderot, for instance, support for the Likud dropped by more than 1.5%, while support for Liberman grew by 2%. Similarly, in the northern town of Shlomi, support for the Likud declined by more than 2%, while Yisrael Beitenu increased by 3.5%.

One possible explanation for this movement of voters from the Likud to Yisrael Beitenu could be the characteristics of many such voters — people who immigrated to Israel from Russian-speaking countries, or people whose parents did. In the past, these people voted for the Likud, because their politics traditionally veer (nationalistic) right, but in this election, they internalized Yisrael Beitenu’s campaign message concerning religion and state. Liberman’s focus on these issues is particularly dear to them. The fact that they have to prove to the Rabbinate that they are really Jews before they can get married seems to have clinched the deal.

Another right-wing group that supported Liberman was voters for Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who was absorbed back in the Likud after last April’s election. Some of Kahlon’s votes also went to Liberman. So, for instance, in the West Bank town of Ariel, the 3.82% of votes that Kahlon won last April did not switch allegiance to the Likud, which won the same number of votes in both elections. Meanwhile, Liberman skyrocketed, from about 14% to almost 22% of the total number of votes. The minor shift in percentage point among the other parties seems to indicate that most Zehut voters switched to Liberman, too.

One other group where Liberman was successful was the Druze sector. According to the Globes analysis, Yisrael Beitenu received 10,000 votes from the Druze sector, compared to just 6,000 in April. What is remarkable is that Yisrael Beitenu won these votes even though it supported the Nationality Law, which infuriated Israel’s Druze community. Hamad Amar, a Druze Knesset member for Yisrael Beitenu, told Al-Monitor that these Druze voters were very impressed by the way Liberman stuck to his principles in last May’s coalition negotiations. “They recognized that Liberman sticks to his word and that he is reliable. That is the most important thing for us.”

For many voters, the fact that Liberman combined a promise to introduce liberal changes in matters of religion and state — a call for unity that would enable him to fulfill his campaign promises, and a stubborn refusal to join a Netanyahu government if the Conscription Law is changed — was evidence of the kind of credibility that put him in the key position of the kingmaker in Israeli politics — at least for now.

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