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How renegade right-winger Avigdor Lieberman threw Israel into chaos

Gilad Greenwald
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Published: 27 June 2019

Last updated: 4 March 2024

SOME PEOPLE FROM the centre-left say they will vote for Avigdor Lieberman in the coming Israeli elections. In recent polls, Lieberman’s party, Israel Beytenu, has received enough support to win nine to 10 seats in the next Knesset (compared to five in the outgoing Knesset), none of them at the expense of other right-wing parties.

This is despite Lieberman being one of the most extreme right-wing, ultranationalist figures in Israeli politics. Lieberman has a sharp political sense and identified an issue - his so-called fight against the ultra-Orthodox - he believes will win him votes from Israelis who usually oppose him. Last week he declared he would support a national unity government, even if it was led by Benny Gantz.

This potential support for Lieberman reveals (again) the great weakness of the Left in Israel since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, and especially in the past decade.

Nevertheless, the fact that liberals are considering voting for a party whose leader has often expressed strong racism towards Israel's Arab citizens, requires further explanation.

One reason is the “anyone-but-Bibi” effect.  Lieberman is the first politician in years who has undermined and challenged Netanyahu's leadership. He is also the only one who has handed Netanyahu a political defeat by preventing him from forming a government and passing laws that would have ensured his continued rule (despite the legal accusations against him).

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Among the Left there is a perception that the way to change Israel's political direction is by ousting Netanyahu. This perception, even if it is wrong or misleading, is encouraging left-wing voters to ignore Lieberman's positions on civil rights issues, and to join him in the fight against Netanyahu.

Second, the strengthening of the populist Right alongside the radical-religious Right. The populist Right is represented mainly by Likud members such as Miri Regev and Miki Zohar.

Both openly declare they want major changes made to the structure of Israeli democracy, in rule-of-law institutions, and in the separation and balance of power between the government and the Supreme Court.

Politicians such as Bezalel Smotritz and Itamar Ben-Gvir, and racist and homophobic rabbis like Yigal Levinstein, represent the radical-religious Right that seeks to move Israel towards an ultranationalist theocracy.

In comparison, the secular Lieberman suddenly seems like a moderate democrat. The Right has led Israel in such a radical direction (from both national and religious points of view), that a person who until recently was perceived as a racist, now seems to be a legitimate electoral alternative.

In addition, since Lieberman comes from the Right, which has been identified with victory and political success for more than 40 years, supporting him seems a way to weaken these populist and religious voices.

Third, and perhaps most important, the public’s lack of interest in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Few Israelis now vote according to a politician’s stance on the occupation. Former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, perhaps the last political figure to promote this agenda, lost her seat at the last election.

On the socio-economical level, and especially on questions of religion and state, Lieberman is no different from most centre-left parties. There are, of course, nuances.

For example, Labor focuses on LGBT+ rights, whereas Lieberman focuses more on the ultra-Orthodox Recruitment Bill and public transportation on Shabbat, but their ideological anchors in this context are quite similar. No wonder, then, some left-wing voters are willing to support a person who won’t accept any compromise with the Palestinians.

While there appear to be rational reasons for left-wing voters to support Lieberman in the upcoming elections, voting for him means strengthening the opposing political camp.

Lieberman is unpredictable and it is very likely that after the elections he will return to Netanyahu's arms and help form a large coalition of about 70 Knesset members (in the outgoing Knesset, there were 65 right-wing MKs, including Lieberman).

The Right in Israel is stronger than ever and drunk with power. Liberals should not help Lieberman in his attempt to bury the Left.

Illustration: Avi Katz


The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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