No such thing as bad publicity for Yisrael Beytenu – until now?

Liberman's party traditionally got a boost from investigations of its officials, but his recent centrist turn could buck the trend.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman gives a statement to the media at his Jerusalem office December 2 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman gives a statement to the media at his Jerusalem office December 2
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Upon learning Wednesday morning about the corruption scandal rocking Yisrael Beytenu, one may be tempted to think this couldn’t have come at a worse time for the party – in the middle of an election campaign.
Resist that temptation.
Yisrael Beytenu historically has been the political embodiment of the adage “There’s no such thing as bad publicity” – police investigations thus far have helped the party electorally.
As a party spokesman pointed out shortly after the gag order was lifted from the probe, police questioned senior Yisrael Beytenu officials in every election campaign since the party’s inception in 1999. In 2009, Yisrael Beytenu rode the investigation of its leader Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman to 15 Knesset seats – the most it has ever had.
The theory behind criminal investigations boosting Yisrael Beytenu in the polls is that they awaken a sense of otherness and victimhood in its traditional voter base – immigrants from the former Soviet Union – since they are half of the party’s current MKs.
The probes also attract right-wing voters who feel like the Left runs the country, the media, the police, etc., even though the Right has been in power for years.
The most popular newspaper in the country is pro-Netanyahu, and a Yisrael Beytenu minister is in charge of the police.
Of course, politicians on the Right and Left, religious and secular, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, immigrant and Sabra have been investigated for corruption in the years since 1999, but perception is often stronger than fact.
Now that Liberman has distanced himself from both of the groups that identified with the party’s victimhood, he may no longer benefit from that perception.
This is not the first election in which Yisrael Beytenu has sought to present itself as not just a party for Russian-speakers, but it is certainly continuing in that vein and, in any case, many sociologists and pollsters say immigrants from the FSU no longer vote in a bloc.
Plus, Liberman presented himself as a centrist in recent weeks, highlighting his support for a two-state solution and saying that isolated settlements will have to be evacuated, even though he lives in one, Nokdim.
In addition, the party refuses to confirm or deny reports that the right-wing members of his faction – Tourism Minister Uzi Landau, Agriculture Minister Yair Shamir and MK David Rotem – will not be on the list of candidates for the next Knesset. However, he has not backed down from demanding that Israeli Arabs declare loyalty to the state.
The proudly right-wing parties – Likud and Bayit Yehudi – jumped on all of Liberman’s ostensibly leftist statements, and Yisrael Beytenu has been bleeding voters from the Right in the polls without picking any up from the other parties calling themselves centrist – Yesh Atid and Koolanu.
When Liberman was acquitted of all charges in November 2013, political pundits joked that he wouldn’t do well in the next election, and it seems that their prediction, however not serious it may have been, came true. Yisrael Beytenu got an average of 8.8 seats in last week’s polls.
Whether the latest round of investigations will give Liberman’s party a boost remains to be seen, but it also may require a tactical U-turn on his part to attract the voters they used to bring in and continue to spin bad publicity into electoral gold.