Lieberman elated over prospects

"We have a lot of work ahead of us. This is just the beginning of our fight."

"After the next election, we will be the ruling party," pledged Israel Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman to the throng of supporters who crowded around to celebrate initial results showing the party was now the third largest. With exit polls giving him 12-14 mandates, his party has likely replaced the Likud as the the leader of the right-wing. "We have a lot of work ahead of us. This is just the beginning of our fight for Israel's future," said the 47-year-old politician, as he stood with his family in a reception room of a Jerusalem hotel. Supporters who waited an hour to hear him greeted Lieberman with confetti, balloons and chants of "Da, Lieberman," and "Here is the next prime minister." With words that echoed his campaign pledge, Lieberman promised he would "do everything to promote security for Israeli citizens, both from the external threat of its enemies and from the internal threat from criminals." With the help of his party, Lieberman said, he hoped that Israel would be a nation that welcomed immigrants and maintained its character as a Jewish state. "We've proven we can unite the nation," he said. He added he was glad that his party was now the head of the right-wing, even as he was sorry that all the right-wing parties together did not garner 61 mandates. To all media questions about coalition talks, he said he was not negotiating with Kadima through the media. He repeated statements he made on the campaign trail that he was open to serious negotiations with Kadima, should the party turn to him to enter the government. "We have not talked with Kadima, and we have not started negotiations," he said. He also cautioned everyone that it was important to wait for the real results. But his supporters were less cautious. After they screamed and hugged each other when the results were announced, the most common phrase uttered in the room was "We told you so!" In the last election, Lieberman, who joined forces with the National Union in the 16th Knesset, garnered only seven mandates. When he opted to run alone for the 17th Knesset, initial polls gave him five mandates. Statements by Lieberman and his supporters saying that they could be the surprise of the election and the third largest party were seen as idle boasting. Nor was his strategy of focusing heavily on Russian-speaking voters taken that seriously, given that in the last election former Yisrael Ba'aliya leader Natan Sharansky failed to harness the Russian vote for his party. But polls in the last weeks before the vote showed Lieberman was succeeding. A Jerusalem Post poll last Thursday showed him securing 44 percent of the Russian vote. But not all his supporters were Russian speakers. With a smile almost as wide as his face, MK Eliezer Cohen, the sabra who helped create Israel Beiteinu in 1999 when Lieberman left the Likud, said he had always known this day would come. "I'm happy, very happy," he said. "He [Lieberman] is a great leader. He will be prime minister."