To all appearances, Yisrael Beytenu is in bad straits.
Its own MKs acknowledge that the party has suffered from an identity crisis since joining forces with the Likud in late 2012 to run for Knesset on a joint list. The move did not help the party in the January 2013 elections, contributing to its fall from 15 seats in the last Knesset to 11 in the current one.
A poll conducted by the business journal Globes nine months later, in October, gave it just six.
The party fared even worse in October’s municipal elections. In Ashdod, the Israeli city with the highest number of Russian-speaking Israelis — the demographic from which Yisrael Beytenu draws much of its support — the party’s representation on the city council fell precipitously from five seats to two. In Jerusalem, party leader Avigdor Liberman threw his considerable political weight behind mayoral candidate Moshe Leon – who lost.
And on and on.
Indeed, these electoral setbacks both nationally and locally were the background against which most observers interpreted Liberman’s efforts in recent months to merge his party into Likud. Those efforts, too, despite enjoying the apparent support of Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu, have been rebuffed by Likud activists concerned at the effect an influx of organized new power centers would have on their own influence in the ruling party.
And finally, Yisrael Beytenu’s long-term prospects may be hurt by a development the party’s own leaders openly welcome: the integration of Russian-speaking Israelis into a broader Israeli identity socially, linguistically — and politically, too.
All this makes for a compelling case that Yisrael Beytenu is in real trouble, and that its party’s defining political personality, Liberman, has lost no small amount of his once-assured base of support.
But for a party supposedly in crisis, there is remarkably little sense of foreboding among its activists and leaders. They have stumbled, the party’s faithful acknowledge, but not fallen.
The union with Likud is seen by many in the party as the cause of much of its troubles.
“In 2003, we ran together with the National Union [party],” notes one of the party’s key political strategists, its former director general and the current deputy interior minister Faina Kirshenbaum.
Then, too, the party suffered electorally because it was identified with another list, garnering just three Knesset seats for itself in the seven-seat win it shared with a handful of far-right parties. “But when we left the shared list [for the 2006 elections],” Kirshenbaum noted in a conversation last week with The Times of Israel, “we got 11 seats.”
“Joining the Likud wasn’t in the party’s interest,” says a senior party official who asked to remain anonymous. “And we knew that. We knew we’d pay an electoral price. But we believe in large blocs and stable governance.”
Whether the party knowingly went against its political interest in the last election is up for debate, but its advocacy for larger parties and more stable governance is longstanding. The Governance Bill currently under debate in the Knesset, which would raise the electoral threshold and strengthen the ruling government’s hold on power, was partly written by Yisrael Beytenu’s powerful chairman of the Knesset Law Committee, MK David Rotem. And the party is fond of raising the issue during elections, noting for example that Israel has seen 33 governments in its 65 years of existence.
Being locked into Likud’s embrace has cost the party not only its brand, but also its celebrated independence, say insiders.
“We were more consistent [before running with Likud],” argues the official. “Likud has many heads, and even more deputy heads,” all pulling in different directions. The result is a fractious, confused public persona for Israel’s ruling party. Yisrael Beytenu, by contrast, is run by one man, Foreign Minister Liberman, who sets the tone, the political message and the Knesset list.
It’s a structure labeled “undemocratic” by opponents in parties such as Likud or Labor that hold regular primaries and contain competing leaders and factions, but the party’s internal stability may be a key factor for its success — achieving in the last Knesset as many seats as Labor in the current one.
Then there is the question of Liberman’s recent corruption trial.
After 17 years of allegations and investigations, the senior party official noted bitterly to The Times of Israel this week, “Liberman was indicted just six weeks before the [January parliamentary] elections. He had to resign as foreign minister” and went to the polls with a cloud hanging over his head.
“But he was unanimously acquitted” by a three-judge panel in November, the official noted.
The Globes poll showing just six seats for the party if it runs alone was conducted days before Liberman’s acquittal, Yisrael Beytenu officials are quick to note.
Informal discussions are underway inside Yisrael Beytenu about its future. The stinging rejection from Likud, the real fears about its shrinking demographic base, and the worrying local elections numbers from October frame the internal debate.
Kirshenbaum won’t confirm whether the party plans to separate from Likud in the foreseeable future, a move that could be destabilizing for the coalition as it would leave the ruling Likud in control of just 20 seats, only one more than its junior coalition partner Yesh Atid.
But, she says, “we’re drawing up plans. We’re preparing ourselves to run separately” in case the party concludes it must.
The party also insists it is not the sectoral, Russian-speaking party of the popular imagination, but can attract other constituencies as the population of Israelis identifying as “Russian” ages and shrinks.
“At least six of the 15 seats we had [in the last Knesset] were from outside the Russian-speaking sector,” she notes, a figure confirmed by polls at the time.
Party officials understand that that appeal outside the party’s old base is key to its future.
According to Kirshenbaum, “we never saw ourselves as sectoral. Our agenda has always gone far beyond issues related to immigrants,” with a platform that advocates strengthening local government, a territorial swap with the Palestinians along ethnic lines, law-and-order legislation and more.
“It’s too early to talk about concrete plans,” Kirshenbaum says when pressed for details about how the party was preparing for the next elections. “But I can tell you that if we run on our own, we will grow to 18 seats.”