Yisrael Beiteinu Without Lieberman?

Brent Sasley on why the indictment of Avigdor Lieberman spells doom for his party, not for him.

Yesterday I wrote that the indictment of Avigdor Lieberman, followed by his press conference in which he said he’d consult with his lawyers and the voters but not resign yet, posed at best a distraction for him as he continues to aim for the pinnacle of power—becoming prime minister.

Today Lieberman announced he is, in fact, resigning as Foreign Minister (but not from the Knesset). While I still don’t think this spells doom for Lieberman, it might represent the coming end of his party, Yisrael Beiteinu.

It’s likely Lieberman resigned so that the indictment isn’t hanging over him during the rest of the election campaign: Likud Beiteinu is still polling persistently around 35-39 seats, less than what the two parties currently have. Some of their support has gone to far-right parties, particularly Jewish Home-National Union and Strong Israel; corruption charges could dull Likud Beiteinu’s appeal in comparison.

Resigning now also probably paves the way for a plea bargain, so that Lieberman can claim he wasn’t convicted and thereby remove the thorny legal question of his return as a minister. In other words, I think Lieberman still views the indictment as a distraction, and he’s simply taking the quickest path to resolving it so he can move on.

The larger question that is raised by the incident, though, is what might to happen to Yisrael Beiteinu. Michael Koplow traces Lieberman’s rise to leader of one of the most important parties in the Knesset. But while Yisrael Beiteinu was founded to represent the Russian community and promote its interests, particularly secular politics, it’s only the latest incarnation of such a party.

Before Yisrael Beiteinu, there was Yisrael B’aliyah, founded in 1996 by Natan Sharansky but—as its fortunes declined—folded into Likud in 2003. Sharansky eventually left the party, moving on to greener pastures.

Lieberman views Yisrael Beiteinu the same way—as a personal vehicle for politicking. His first political work was in Likud, and he left it in the aftermath of the Wye River deliberations in 1998 because he opposed too many concessions to the Palestinians. Yisrael Beiteinu was the result: claiming it to be a Russian-oriented party gave him a natural and large constituency in Israel (by then the Russian community was over a million strong), and even though he had to fight Yisrael B’aliyah for a couple more elections, his hardline position toward Palestinians in the West Bank-Gaza and within Israel was used to distinguish the party from Sharansky’s.

In the 2003 election, Lieberman ran on a joint electoral ticket with the far-right National Union (not a Russian party), taking seven seats, and then—perceiving he could make a better go of it alone—returned to independent status for the 2006 election. He was right—the party won 11 seats, and today has 15 mandates in the Knesset.

The historical record indicates Lieberman is a political opportunist, and he’ll leave his party as soon as it’s necessary. As I’ve argued, he’ll never become prime minister through Yisrael Beiteinu, which means he’ll need to go through Likud. There are surely others in the party who’d be willing to become its leader, though with the forced removal of Danny Ayalon and Uzi Landau’s advanced age and lack of deep support, there are few who could do so effectively.

The party might otherwise still claim to represent the Russian community. But presumably Lieberman will take Yisrael Beiteinu’s issues (national service for the haredim, support for settlements, opposition to the Palestinian Authority, electoral reform) with him if/when he leaves, which means Russian voters who support the party for those reasons could be convinced to leave with him.

Without Lieberman, the party would struggle and likely fade away within an election cycle. In one sense, this might be appropriate; assuming another Russian party doesn’t take its place, it could be taken as a signal that the Russian community is integrated into the broader Israeli society. But in political terms, its disappearance will serve primarily as a reminder of Lieberman’s ambition.