Analysis: Re-shuffling half the country’s political deck

Even if Israel Beiteinu loses voters sans Lieberman, it doesn’t mean Kadima will benefit.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman 311 (photo credit: Baz Ratner/Reuters)
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman 311
(photo credit: Baz Ratner/Reuters)
It’s no secret that many, many people in Israel and around the world have long waited for the decision to be made to indict Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
Many of those who wish Lieberman ill – and they are legion – believe that bringing him down will significantly alter Israel’s politics, and as a result make the country more flexible regarding the diplomatic process with the Palestinians.
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It is undeniable that Israel Beiteinu is Avigdor Lieberman. Few, but the most ardent political junkies, can probably name three of the party’s MKs who are neither ministers, nor named Danny Ayalon.
Lieberman created the party, built the party, and is its life and soul. If he goes down, it seems safe to say, the party’s fortunes will go down with him.
The party may go down, but not necessarily Lieberman’s message – a secular, strongly nationalistic, in-yourface message that, while anathema to many, resonates loudly with a large segment of the country’s population.
In the last elections, Lieberman received 394,577 votes, making it the third largest party in the land. And while a good number of those voters may – if Lieberman does not head the party the next time around – look for other political homes, it is unlikely they will find them outside the right-wing bloc.
In other words, while Israel Beiteinu may hemorrhage voters as a result of a Lieberman indictment, this doesn’t mean Kadima is going to benefit.
These votes will most likely stay in the right-wing camp, and in the current era of a number of small and midsized parties, it is the blocs – rather than the parties – that determine who will govern.
We know this from the last election, when Kadima and Tzipi Livni won the election, but couldn’t cobble together a collation because they did not have enough seats in the center-left bloc.
The seats that Israel Beiteinu loses will, in all probability, remain inside the right wing camp, thereby not dramatically altering the country’s overall political math.
The only exception may be if Yair Lapid forms a stridently secular party – which could attract some voters who gravitated to Lieberman because of his stand on issues of religion and state.
But the more likely scenario is that voters leaving Israel Beiteinu will go to Likud, the National Union, and some (though not many) even to Habayit Hayehudi.
A Lieberman indictment could very well strengthen Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu as he begins looking toward the next election.
On the one hand, the Likud will pick up some of those leaving a Lieberman-less Israel Beiteinu; and secondly, it removes the man Netanyahu sees as his most serious political threat.
For months, perhaps since the formation of the government, Netanyahu has seen Lieberman – not Livni – as his main political threat.
Having leap-frogged from four Knesset seats in 1999 to 15 in 2009, Lieberman posed a threat to Netanyahu from his Right from the very outset. And for that reason, Netanyahu bent over backwards to keep him happy.
This is why Netanyahu continued to put up with Lieberman’s antics: from the foreign minister’s contradiction of the prime minister’s polices during a speech at the UN; to his declaration that it was unrealistic to think a final peace agreement could be reached with the Palestinians – a position in direct disagreement with the Netanyahu’s; to his torpedoing of the prime minister’s selection of Uzi Arad as ambassador to London.
Netanyahu wanted to keep Lieberman inside the coalition tent, rather than having him take pot shots from the outside.
While recent polls show that Livni and Kadima might best Netanyahu and the Likud in the next elections – as they did in 2009 – those polls also indicate that Livni would still be hard pressed to put together a coalition.
That job would then devolve upon the leader of the largest party on the right.
Lieberman never hid his prime-ministerial ambitions. And his plan did not seem like science fiction: outflank Netanyahu on the right, and pick up voters from the right wing of the Likud who think Netanyahu is veering too far left. By doing so, he could conceivably head the largest party on the right.
But an indictment removes Lieberman from the picture, and there is currently nobody on the right who really poses a challenge to Netanyahu.
Lieberman’s legal problems significantly shuffle the right’s political cards, while not fundamentally altering the country’s overall political deck.