Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman’s high-risk election gambit appeared to have paid off on Tuesday night, as exit polls showed he had dramatically increased his party’s Knesset representation and remains the kingmaker in the convoluted political landscape.
According to the three major exit polls, Yisrael Beytenu can expect to gain between eight and 10 Knesset seats, an impressive increase from the five seats it scraped together in the April election.
Channel 12 and Channel 13’s exit polls both gave Yisrael Beytenu eight seats, while Kan’s exit poll put the party at 10 seats.
Liberman promised on Tuesday night that his party would fulfil its campaign vow to ensure the establishment of a national unity government without the ultra-Orthodox and religious-Zionist parties.
“I say to all citizens, our security and economy are in an emergency situation. Therefore the state must have a broad national, liberal government and not one which fights for survival from one week to the next and from one no-confidence vote to the next.
The Yisrael Beytenu leader vowed that no attempts to tempt him with of ministerial positions or even a prime ministerial rotation agreement would persuade him to abandon his goal of a national unity government without the sectoral parties.
And Liberman even stated that he would not mind being left out of the coalition if it meant avoiding the complications of a narrow government.
The fact that the exit polls gave neither the right-wing or left-wing political blocs a majority means that Liberman’s goal of forcing a national unity government without the ultra-Orthodox or religious parties now appears attainable.
The clear animus Liberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now have for each other also gives the latter serious cause for concern for the continuation of his political career.
Yisrael Beytenu MK Eli Avidar told The Jerusalem Post after the exit polls that the party would be strictly abiding by its commitment to back only a national unity government of centrist, liberal non-sectoral parties, firmly ruling out UTJ, Shas and Yamina.
“We will not join any kind of narrow government, and we will only support one of the two leaders – Benny Gantz or Benjamin Netanyahu – who will support a unity government,” said Avidar. “As long as leaders will not be interested in a unity government, we will not recommend them to the president” to form a coalition.
Avidar also insisted that Yisrael Beytenu would not support a third round of elections, noting that with his party’s Knesset strength, there is not a majority of MKs who would support dissolving the Knesset again for this purpose.
He denied however that Yisrael Beytenu was interested in ending Netanyahu’s career, despite Blue and White having ruled out sitting in a government with the Likud leader.
During the election campaign, Liberman went all-in on a strategy focusing exclusively on secular concerns over the rising power and influence of the ultra-Orthodox and religious-Zionist parties, especially their impact on public life.
This strategy appears to have paid off massively for the mercurial political leader, with his party going from sinking dangerously low toward the electoral threshold to becoming a key power broker in the coming efforts to put together a coalition government.
Liberman’s primary goal on Election Day was to boost voter turnout in Yisrael Beytenu strongholds in particular, and bastions of the secular Israeli population more generally.
And he was in a jovial mode as he went about his work, visiting symbolic sites connected to the secular struggle against what Liberman and others have described as “religious coercion.”
During the course of his travels, Liberman even posted a video of himself watching his impersonator on the satirical show “Eretz Nehederet” implore the electorate – relentlessly, in a nasal, over-the-top Russian accent – to go out and vote.
He started out the day voting at his polling station where he lives in the settlement of Nokdim, calling on “all the citizens of the State of Israel” to go out and vote, describing it as “the obligation of every citizen.”
From Nokdim, Liberman set out for the central and coastal districts to urge secular voters to get out and vote in person.
He visited the BIG shopping mall in Ashdod, where in January 2018 he spent time on Shabbat shopping in protest at the “mini-market law” passed by the ultra-Orthodox parties, which prevented municipal authorities from allowing greater levels of commercial activity in their districts.
“This is where a year and a half ago I came as defense minister on Shabbat to protest against religious coercion and against the closure of mini-markets on Shabbat,” said Liberman. “This is where the struggle against that law began, a law which I hope we will be able to repeal after the election.”
From there, Liberman went on to Tel Aviv, and made sure to stop at the “Jewish Bridge,” a pedestrian bridge spanning the Ayalon Highway and connecting the separate parts of the city.
Political pressure by the ultra-Orthodox parties on the government led to construction on the new bridge scheduled for several Saturdays in a row to be canceled because of the desecration of Shabbat involved in the work.
The work was eventually resumed after the Tel Aviv Municipality petitioned the High Court of Justice against the construction freeze.
Speaking at the Jewish Bridge during Election Day, Liberman said that “We are all in favor of the sanctity of Shabbat, but the sanctity of life is even more important.”
The Yisrael Beytenu leader was referencing claims that the heavy traffic jams that would allegedly be caused by carrying out the construction work during the week instead of Shabbat would endanger lives by tying up emergency service vehicles.
“Whoever wants us to be able to work in accordance with the needs of life and the economy should vote Yisrael Beytenu, whoever wants to be stuck in traffic jams for eight hours due to construction work on Sundays shouldn’t vote for Yisrael Beytenu,” intoned Liberman.
From there, Liberman journeyed on to the popular Sarona market in Tel Aviv, taking with him his message of “Live and Let Live” and arguing that only Yisrael Beytenu was serious about insisting on a national unity government without the ultra-Orthodox and religious-Zionist parties.
“We are the only party that has committed to a national unity government without the ultra-Orthodox and messianics,” he said. “For all other parties this [promise] is just a slogan, with us it is a guarantee.”