Lieberman makes point 224 88 aj.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi [file])
On the eve of the 2006 general elections, Avigdor Lieberman's Israel Beiteinu Party held just three seats in the Knesset and was seen as little threat to the traditional powerhouses that had dominated the Knesset for decades.
But now, with just over a week before the 2009 elections, Lieberman's party is poised to become the third-largest in the country, surpassing the Labor party with 16 projected mandates and a Knesset list that runs the gamut from former models to former ambassadors.
So how has this party, often dismissed by its critics as a populist fluke, risen from its humble beginnings as a party for Russian immigrants to a full-blown political juggernaut?
"I think the Israeli voter respects our honesty," former ambassador to the US and current Israel Beiteinu Knesset candidate Danny Ayalon told the The Jerusalem Post on Sunday. "What we offer is a very direct, logical platform that caters to the voters' common sense, and I think more and more people are waking up to that."
If the polls are any indication, Ayalon is right. Nearly every survey taken in recent weeks has charted Israel Beiteinu's consistent rising star, moving in on the Labor Party for the No. 3 spot in the government and wooing more Israeli voters than ever before.
"If they can hold on to their momentum, Israel Beiteinu will be the biggest election surprise of 2009," pollster Rafi Smith of the Rafi Smith Institute told the Post. "Even before [Operation Cast Lead], they had good signals going for them, but during the war they received a huge boost."
Smith explained that the party's message - mainly one of loyalty to the state, a message perceived to be directed at the country's Israeli Arab population - was vindicated during the war, as rockets rained down on the South and images of Israeli Arab protesters in places like Sakhnin and Haifa were splashed across the nightly news waving Hamas flags and shouting, "Death to the Jews!"
"Additionally, I think many people, especially residents of the South, were unhappy with the conclusion of Operation Cast Lead," Smith said. "There is a feeling that we didn't finish the job - and we've seen that in our research. The numbers show it."
Smith explained that "we basically have the same number of Russian voters supporting Israel Beiteinu as in years past - between 40 and 45 percent. So how do you explain the sharp rise? It's veteran Israelis. They're making all the difference for this party right now."
Kadima MK Marina Solodkin, a long-time activist in Russian immigrant politics in Israel, agreed.
"The Russian vote for Israel Beiteinu is more or less the same as it's always been," she said. "There's no change there, and Lieberman is certainly not reaching out to them any more than usual. The only way to explain their rise in popularity is with the vatikim, the veteran Israelis who now suddenly want to vote for them.
"I find it a bit scary," Solodkin continued. "To me they're like fascists."
But to more and more Israelis, Israel Beiteinu is offering exactly what they want to hear.
"The Israeli voter is tired of politicians telling everyone what to do but not how to do it," Ayalon said. "We have a very clear message, and yes, there are some who call us racist or fascist, but it's simply untrue. What we're saying is that every citizen of this country should pledge allegiance to it, just like American citizens pledge allegiance to the flag, or new immigrants to America pledge an oath of allegiance before receiving citizenship. Our litmus test is not based on race or ethnicity, but loyalty to the state."
Ayalon agreed that his party had received a boost from the images seen during Operation Cast Lead, but insisted that the problems his party aimed to address had been around for much longer.
"There are some who say that we are going to radicalize the Arab population," he said. "I say, they don't need us to radicalize them. They've been radicalizing themselves for the last 30 years, and we are not going to shy away from that. I think Israelis, regular Israelis, respect that, and we will continue to insist that Israel has the right to request solidarity from its citizens, especially in a time of war."
However, Ayalon explained, Israel Beiteinu's push for solidarity isn't the only reason they're soaring in the polls.
"We have a wide-ranging platform," he said. "It is evident now, to all Israelis, that Israel Beiteinu is an all-issue party, and I think that's definitely been part of our evolution. We've also become a party for all olim, not just Russians, and the next wave of aliya that we'd like to see is from Western countries."
Ayalon, who co-headed the Nefesh B'Nefesh before entering the political arena, said his party was also focused on easing the process of aliya.
"We've drawn up plans for legislation in the next Knesset to bring more government funding to olim," he said. "We don't necessarily want more government involvement, because the bureaucracy would be too much, but more government funding to ease the process is certainly needed. We'd like to see a 50% increase in the budget for olim and a 100% rise in aliya from the States."
But the bottom line, Ayalon said, was his party's straightforwardness.
"I think Israelis are tired of the government not doing its job," he said. "All we're saying is that it's time we upheld our own laws."