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Liberman's uphill battle: 'Israel Our Home' party gets a remodel

Former defense minister and Yisrael Beitenu chairman Avigdor Liberman at the Tel Aviv launch of his party's election campaign, January 20, 2019

Israeli parliamentarian Avigdor Liberman is - quietly, as always - putting together his Yisrael Beitenu party’s list of candidates for upcoming elections in April.

In a one-man party like Yisrael Beiteinu, which in English means “Israel Our Home,” the names on the list after Liberman’s usually do not matter very much. Members of Israel’s Knesset (parliament) who belong to this secular, right-wing party have, in the past, disappeared within the understanding that Yisrael Beiteinu is the party of “Liberman and all the rest.”

This approach will not work now after recent polls show Yisrael Beiteinu’s representation dropping to only 4 or 5 seats, barely passing the designated electoral threshold required for a party to survive.

Before other parties, mainly those in the center-right camp, swoop in on the 12-13 seats typically garnered by Liberman’s mainly Russian-speaking base, he needs to consider making major strategic changes to adapt to the dynamic political scene he is facing.

Unfortunately for Liberman, a shrinking number of seats is not the only challenge he must overcome.


The fact that almost all Israelis who traditionally support Yisrael Beiteinu are older, Russian-speaking voters is not what Liberman had in mind when he formed the party in 1999 in hopes of it becoming the “all Israeli party.”

His goal was to eventually reach a point where he had significant support from younger, Hebrew-speaking right-wingers and then use his diverse base as a springboard to the Prime Minister’s office.

In 2008, when Yisrael Beiteinu earned 15 seats in the Knesset, he came close to this proportion. One-third of his voters hailed from outside the Russian-speaking sector of Israeli society. Since then, his career has taken a strange direction.

In recent years, Liberman has opted for higher positions in the Likud party’s ruling coalition as Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of Defense. This, combined with several members of his inner circle and members of the party having been arrested on charges of bribery and fraud, has effectively robbed Yisrael Beiteinu of a significant number of its seats.

Moreover, in November 2018, Lieberman’s shock resignation from his post as defense chief sent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government into turmoil which eventually required the Knesset’s dissolution and call for national elections.

When he resigned, Liberman removed five seats held by his secular-nationalist party from parliament, leaving Netanyahu with a razor-thin one-seat majority in the 120-seat Knesset and leaving Liberman with fewer allies in Israel’s ruling party.

AP Photo/Dan Balilty, File

As he faces these problems, Liberman is making several necessary adjustments toward rejuvenating his party to make it more appealing to younger, Hebrew-speaking Russians born in Israel.

Liberman no longer wants Yisrael Beiteinu to be sectarian party. Instead, and in order to achieve a new balance, he is attempting to reinforce the non-Russian representation on his list as well.

The newest name on Liberman’s list is Eli Avidar, a former senior diplomat in the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Among other things, Avidar played a critical role in developing Israeli ties with Muslim leaders in countries with which the Jewish state has no diplomatic relations. More recently, he served as Managing Director of Israel’s Diamond Exchange.

Avidar brings diplomatic experience to the list and is necessary to fill the seat of former Deputy Foreign Minister and Yisrael Beiteinu lawmaker Danny Ayalon.

There are three Israelis in the Russian-speaking community - all around the age of 30 - who fit the profile of what Lieberman needs: Evgeny Sova, a journalist, political commentator, and TV anchorman in Russian media; Ilya Akselrod, a stand- up performer, radio anchor, member of the Russian Comedy Club; and Ilana Kartish, a medal-winning Judoka who was born in Israel just an hour after her pregnant mother’s plane arrived.

Kartish was recently elected to Yisrael Beiteinu’s list for Haifa’s Municipal Council, but left the position few weeks later.

39-year-old Alex Kushnir, a former Director General of the Ministry of Absorption who immigrated to Israel from Ukraine at the age of 13, contributes management experience and knowledge of Israel’s immigration policies to Yisrael Beiteinu’s list.

Kushnir has served in a number of roles in Israel’s Shin Bet security agency, making him a huge an asset for Liberman, whose security priorities as defense minister were particularly hawkish.

The candidacies of Yisrael Beiteinu nominees are not yet finalized.


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