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Israel Beiteinu head Avigdor Lieberman may prove that he was more prophetic than boastful.
When Lieberman began his campaign in December, polls gave his party five mandates, tagging it a small right-wing party. Undeterred by the initial media skepticism, Lieberman predicted that he would be the surprise of the 2006 elections. At the time it was seen as standard campaign bravado, particularly as the party he created in 1999 had not even run independently in the previous elections. In the 16th Knesset his party and the National Union Party together received seven mandates.
But with polls showing Israel Beiteinu at anywhere from seven to 15 mandates, Lieberman is one of the wildcards being watched in this election.
At seven mandates, Israel Beiteinu would likely fall behind the two other mid-size parties vying for fourth place - Shas and the National Union-NRP. At 15, it is possible that the party could place third and surpass the Likud, which some polls have predicted could drop as low as 12.
If Lieberman does surpass the Likud, he could become the head of the right-wing political camp in place of Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu.
No. 4 on the Israel Beiteinu list, novice politician Joseph Shagal, told The Jerusalem Post he was dreaming of 17 mandates. The prediction of seven made him laugh, he said, adding that 12 was realistic. He estimated that eight to 10 of the party's mandates would come from Russian-speaking voters.
Shagal, a journalist who immigrated from Baku, Azerbaijan, in 1990 at age 41, said he came to Israel to start a second life in the Jewish state. A former editor for the Russian-language Channel 9, he's making his second radical shift by entering the political scene.
"I wanted to be a news maker instead of a news writer," he said.
Having refused, for professional reasons, to join a party or even vote - except in the 1992 election - he signed up for Israel Beiteinu 45 days ago out of a deep belief in Lieberman and the party, which caters to Russian-speaking voters.
Having carefully avoided party affiliation, he was surprised to hear himself described in the Likud campaign as a "left-winger."
"That's bullshit," he said. "It's a lie and it's provocative."
The only reason he could think of that he would be labelled left-wing was that he translated the biography of former Labor prime minister Ehud Barak into Russian. But doing so was hardly a statement of political belief, said Shagal.
Lieberman has had no problem in the campaign identifying himself with the Right, even claiming that he was more entitled to be considered right-wing than the Likud was. But he has also carefully hugged the center by stating that he would consider sitting in a government with any Zionist party.
Shagal said he shied away from the typical Left and Right labels. "I'm not on the Right or the Left, I am pragmatic," said Shagal. "I'm working for the future of Israel."
Shagal believes that Lieberman was critical to ensuring that future. Not only did he expect him to do well in Tuesday's elections, but he was sure that Lieberman would one day be prime minister.
Among Lieberman's plans that Shagal admires was the idea of exchanging areas within the pre-1967 borders that are heavily populated with Israeli Arabs for land in Judea and Samaria that has a high concentration of Jews.
Israel had to solve the question of its borders, Shagal said. The security fence was only a temporary solution, he said, but Lieberman's plan solved the problem. The issue was not topography but demography, he said, adding that he came to Israel when many of his family members went to America because he believes in a Jewish state.
Israel Beiteinu No. 7, former Labor MK Sofa Landver, said she too made a similar choice when she came from the Ukraine in 1979 and therefore she also believes in Lieberman. Landver was an MK in the 14th, 15th and 16th Knessets. But she said she saw no hope for Labor's social policies. Once the election is over the Labor party's desire to work on issues such as poverty, health, immigrants, education and children would disappear, she said.
"The day after the elections, the poor will still be poor," she said.
"Israel Beiteinu is a party for immigrants but it wants all the children of Israel to be able to face the future. We want to change things," she said."Our voters believe that only Lieberman can make these changes," she added.
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