Liberman on the Titanic

Israel’s broadest-ever corruption scandal is threatening to sink the Yisrael Beytenu leader and his political project just when its Promised Land was in sight.

Le ministre des Affaires étrangères Avigdor Liberman (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
Le ministre des Affaires étrangères Avigdor Liberman
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
THE WORST things stem from the corruption of the best things, said philosopher David Hume in what might ultimately sum up the rise and fall of the political flagship of Russian-speaking Israelis.
With dozens of power-brokers, including mayors, lobbyists, lawmakers, and cabinet members investigated and some also arrested, what began as a political Cinderella story is giving way to the most sprawling corruption scandal Israeli politics has ever seen.
The scandal erupted in December when news broke that police had arrested former tourism minister Stas Misezhnikov and were investigating former deputy interior minister Faina Kirschenbaum for their roles in a network that allegedly funneled public funds into private pockets, while buying, selling and creating public positions.
The investigation, which has been underway for two years and is reportedly assisted by a state witness, involves some 30 suspects including one mayor, four regional council heads, the director general of the Ministry of Agriculture, the former director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, the chairman of the Anti-Drug Authority, and a former chairman of the Israel Basketball Association.
The network’s alleged method was to condition the transfer of governmental funds to local authorities and assorted public agencies in return for appointments and kickbacks. The allegations reportedly include bribery, forgery, theft, and manipulation of tenders.
Some of the suspicions are about what happened within ministries. For instance, the Agriculture Ministry created a new position, Head of Regulation and Projects in the Cattle Growers Association, and then hired Kirschenbaum’s daughter, Meital, for the post without holding a tender.
Most irregularities, however, allegedly happened in local government.
Only one-fifth of municipalities are fiscally self-sufficient, leading the remaining 80 percent to offset their deficits through budget transfers from the Ministry of Interior. The result is a dependency that allows for pressures that might, in turn, produce irregularities and felonies.
For instance, Yitzhak Meron, the mayor of the mid-sized city of Afula in the Jezreel Valley, was arrested in his office along with his deputy Boris Yudis, who had been allegedly appointed in return for a NIS 4 million budget transfer from Yisrael Beytenu, the party headed by Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, and to which Deputy Mayor Yudis belongs.
Police have similar suspicions concerning the regional councils of Tamar, which straddles the southern Dead Sea; its northern neighbor, Megilot; Samaria, which governs the settlements in the northwestern West Bank; and Mateh Yehuda, whose jurisdiction covers 57 villages and kibbutzim west of Jerusalem, more than any other regional council in the country.
Experience teaches that the road from these accusations to indictments and convictions can be long and meandering.
Even so, the criminal allegations are unprecedented in their scope and the political tremors they have triggered are already palpable, and may prove seminal.
The suspicions are extraordinary even for Israel’s extensive history of corruption scandals. True, the suspects in this one are not nearly as senior as the president, prime minister, finance minister, and foreign minister who have been tried in recent years. Indeed, they are even more junior than the designated governor of the Bank of Israel who, back in 1977, went to jail for embezzlement. Nor are the individual allegations novel.
What’s new here is corruption’s ostensible systemization and scope. Whereas previous scandals involved either one individual, like former president Moshe Katsav or former finance minister Avraham Hirschson, or a single locality – like Jerusalem in the case of the Holyland Affair – this scandal involves multiple agencies and local governments, dozens of elected and appointed officials, and an apparent nexus between them.
That link allegedly nests in Yisrael Beytenu, the party that once orbited, then joined and ultimately abandoned, and now rivals, the ruling Likud.
For more than a decade Yisrael Beytenu was the political emblem of the post-Soviet immigration’s economic and social success.
Whatever one thought of its politicians’ views, there was no denying that this immigration’s political achievement was astonishing. Previous immigrations took decades to penetrate the Jewish state’s labyrinthine corridors of power, and then, too, they did so only through the veteran parties. Immigrant parties were political electoral flops and non-starters.
The so-called Russian parties defied these precedents. Launched by the heroic Natan Sharansky and benefiting from his aura, his Yisrael Ba’aliya party made a grand entry into politics, winning seven Knesset seats in 1996 and landing in the cabinet immigrants who had arrived in the Jewish state less than a decade earlier.
That party’s cause was easing Russian- speaking immigrants’ travails, and it dedicated its time to issues like mortgage discounts, municipal tax breaks, and who-is-a-Jew dilemmas. So focused was this party on its narrow electorate’s social concerns, that for a long time its leader avoided making clear statements concerning the Middle East conflict.
Seven years on, when its electorate dropped to a mere two Knesset seats, Sharansky merged his party with Ariel Sharon’s Likud, arguing that his original cause had fortunately ceased to exist, as the immigrants became so well absorbed that they no longer needed their own party.
Had it ended there, the story of Russian- Israelis’ political adventure would have been history. But it didn’t. In fact, it had hardly begun. The Russian-speaking public remained an electoral goldmine, even if its needs were no longer what they were back when it landed in the Jewish state.
This is what Avigdor Liberman understood while aiming at a different target to Sharansky’s: the premiership.
Though Liberman would also focus on the Russian-speaking public’s priorities, such as civil marriages and cheap housing, to him this electorate was not a goal, but a means – a basis for the broader electorate he had to woo if he were to be crowned prime minister.
Liberman, therefore, set out to blur his party’s ethnic image by recruiting established Israeli-born figures who would espouse his combination of nationalism, secularism and capitalism.
The recruitment project was a success.
What started off as an immigrants’ club was gradually joined by a colorful collection of thoroughbred Sabras, ranging from former ambassador to Washington Danny Ayalon, Attorney David Rotem and former Likud minister Uzi Landau, to Orly Levi, an attorney, and daughter of former foreign minister David Levi and Yair Shamir, a retired air force colonel, senior businessman, and son of former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir. These and other non-immigrants entered the Knesset as members of Liberman’s faction and redid its image.
THOUGH THE party continued to attract a sizable Russian-speaking electorate, Liberman’s party could no longer be dismissed as a glorified landsman club where meetings are run in Russian. Of the faction’s five cabinet seats, three were held by Shamir, Landau and Yitzhak Aharonovich, a former deputy police commissioner. All were veteran and established Israelis who lent Liberman the aura of a legitimate Israeli leader despite the heavy Russian accent with which he arrived in Jerusalem from Kishinev, Moldova, in 1978, at age 20.
However, under these high-profile positions lurked the seemingly marginal position of Deputy Interior Minister, where Liberman installed Faina Kirschenbaum who, like Liberman, immigrated well ahead of the USSR’s downfall, arriving from Lviv, Ukraine, in 1973, at age 18.
In this office, Kirschenbaum was in a position to help, cultivate and favor her party’s mayors and council members, whose election reflected the sizable Russian-speaking populations in the mid-sized towns that checker the periphery.
That is why Kirschenbaum and her party’s role in the alleged crimes are believed to be central, even though some of the suspects represented other parties, most notably Rami Teib, who allegedly mediated between the mayor of Afula and the Interior Ministry, while serving as an aide to Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz of the Likud.
While the arrests include Yisrael Beytenu chief of staff Daoud Godovski, and its former candidate for Jerusalem mayor Moshe Lion, police stress that Liberman – who was cleared in 2013 of a breach of trust indictment and was investigated before that for money laundering and bribery suspicions – is not a suspect.
Even so, the political impression is that the Interior Ministry was used by Kirschenbaum to leverage Liberman’s party by misusing public funds and bandying around appointments.
A nurse, MBA and mother of three who lives in the West Bank community of Nili, Kirschenbaum announced her departure from politics to focus on the legal struggle she now faces.
Had hers been the only resignation, Liberman might have entered the approaching election in reasonable shape considering the circumstances. Yet Liberman is being deserted now by almost the entire cohort of Israeli-born stars with which he studded his Knesset faction.
The first to announce his departure was Knesset Law Committee Chairman David Rotem, who was followed by Tourism Minister Landau, Internal Security Minister Aharonovich and finally Agriculture Minister Shamir.
Worse, from Liberman’s viewpoint, these departures were not offset by new arrivals other than Sharon Gal, a second-tier TV journalist who does not change the broader picture, which is that the political ship Liberman had launched and navigated has run into an iceberg.
POLLS CLAIM that Liberman’s electorate, which peaked six years ago at 15 lawmakers, is now down almost two-thirds, meaning it is shrinking back to its original, predominantly Russian-speaking nucleus.
If, indeed, Liberman fails in the March 17 general election, the debacle would be attributable to his Israeli recruits’ flight no less than to the allegations in which his political creation has become embroiled.
Liberman’s three Israeli-born ministers have impeccable public records. Though none has actively said anything damning about Liberman and the unfolding allegations, their departures come across as abandonment. This is particularly injurious for Liberman in the case of Aharonovich, whose political retirement comes while he was the Minister of Internal Security. As the civilian in charge of police, his failure to stick around for the elections comes across as a vote of no confidence in the Liberman bandwagon.
Barring a major legal turnaround, Liberman is expected to win barely seven seats, and maybe even struggle to pass the fourseat threshold, whose passage he had personally led while clueless he might be its victim. In any event, he now seems to have lost, almost overnight, his previous status as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s most potent threat.
Liberman’s threat rested on what was universally seen as his grip on a sizable part of the immigrant vote, coupled with his appeal to hawkish secularists. Liberman had breathed down Netanyahu’s neck by catering to an electorate that craves strong leadership.
Pundits agreed his plan was to ultimately succeed Netanyahu as Likud’s leader by pandering to the center-right electorate’s quest for boldness in confronting the Palestinian terror and to the center-left’s priorities on the issues of religion and state.
Embattled, Liberman is steering left and right declaring that he would not join a coalition with left-wing Meretz, shortly after claiming he has reached agreement with an unnamed “senior Arab personality” for a pan-Middle Eastern peace agreement.
Just where all this will lead electorally remains to be seen. Assessments that a shrunken and ever-maneuvering Liberman will join a Labor-led coalition may prove far-fetched considering his core electorate’s distaste for Labor’s foreign policy and even more so for its socialism.
Then again, even more far-fetched are the chances that Liberman will emerge from this election as what he was only last month: a major presence in the political system and a leading contender to reach its helm.