Why this campaign will be the toughest yet for Avigdor Liberman
His core base of FSU voters is dwindling, he’s left the Netanyahu bloc and partnered with Arab and left-wing parties. It’s hard to see where Yisrael Beytenu can draw fresh support
In recent weeks, as this column has looked at the right and center-right of the Israeli political spectrum, one big name has been missing: that of Avigdor Liberman, leader of Yisrael Beytenu, and one of just a handful of politicians to have held the three big ministries of Defense, Foreign Affairs and, presently, Finance.
Just a few years ago, such an omission would have been a big surprise. Indeed, not so long ago, Liberman was seen as the Itamar Ben Gvir of his day. A proponent of controversial population “transfer” who described Israel’s Arab community as “a fifth column,” Liberman in 2009 campaigned with the slogan of “no loyalty, no citizenship – only Liberman understands Arabic.”
His right-wing credentials were strengthened further when he ran an entire campaign focused on his pledge to be a paradigm-breaking defense minister, repeating throughout that “with Liberman as defense minister, [Hamas leader Ismail] Haniyeh would have just 48 hours.”
In recent years, however, Liberman has broken away from the right (and some would say, far-right), instead seeking to locate himself on the center-right of the spectrum.
Yet when Benny Gantz’s Blue and White joined forces with Gideon’s Sa’ar’s New Hope to build a broad center-right umbrella party – now known as The National Unity Party – Liberman again wasn’t in the conversation.
His staunch secularism and sharp criticism of the Haredim has alienated Liberman from a large chunk of this bloc, and he was likely seen by Gantz and Sa’ar as too off-putting to the ultra-Orthodox parties, with whom National Unity’s leaders hope to negotiate after the election.
We have been surprised over the years to see in our own polling how Liberman is increasingly seen as being in the center, or even on the left, of the political spectrum.
In fact, the party ideologically closest to Liberman and Yisrael Beytenu today is probably Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid – secular, in favor of religious pluralism (which is seen by some as anti-Haredi), and anti-Benjamin Netanyahu. Liberman’s and Lapid’s parties also share a commitment to free-market economics, and a willingness to sit with Arab parties (at least Ra’am).
Where they differ, however, is in the identity of their base.
Yisrael Beytenu was built in the late 1990s with the aim of representing immigrants from the former Soviet Union. What began as a fringe, sectional party came to prominence as a mainstream, right-wing party in the mid-2000s, winning 11, 15 and then 13 seats by combining its Russian-speaking base with right-leaning voters who identified with its aforementioned anti-Arab rhetoric.
Just a decade ago, Liberman was being talked about as the next Likud leader and a genuine prime ministerial candidate – and it was likely this hope of succeeding Netanyahu as Likud leader that informed his decision to form a joint slate with Likud in the 2013 election.
Yet if Liberman’s ascent was fast – from three to 15 seats in six years – his fall was just as swift.
Since he broke with Netanyahu in 2015, his party has dropped to the five-to-eight seat bracket, where it remains to this day.
After the nadir of the 2019 election, when he won just five seats having faced real fears that he wouldn’t pass the threshold, Liberman managed to reposition himself as a kingmaker and nemesis to Netanyahu, seeing his fortunes recover, albeit with an entirely new brand.
And that new brand has placed him firmly outside the right-wing bloc, leaving him with few friends on the right, a new ideological home, and increasingly reliant on his ethnic and linguistic electoral base.
So what’s next for Liberman and his party?
Outperforming the polls, slightly
In this election his polling has been low, but stable, hovering around the five-and-a-half-seat mark. Around a month ago, Yisrael Beytenu’s numbers began to slide, and this week it dropped below five seats in our average for the first time.
Party officials will argue that Yisrael Beytenu has traditionally outperformed polls, as Russian-speaking Israelis can be hard to poll, and that in reality its position is much stronger.
Looking back at past election results, there is some data to support this this claim –- but not a lot.
In the past five elections, the final polling has underestimated the Yisrael Beytenu vote by around half a seat on average. Only once – in April 2019 – did the party significantly outperform its polls, and notably, in the past three cycles, its polling has been pretty accurate.
So while recent history implies that it may well be doing slightly better than polling suggests, there is little to support the thesis that the polls always – and systematically – underestimate Yisrael Beytenu.
Where to draw votes?
With his party struggling in the polls, we can identify two major challenges facing Liberman as he seeks to again revive his fortunes.
The first is strategic positioning. What niche can Yisrael Beytenu find on the congested political map that enables it to win new voters, or win back those that voted for it in the past few cycles?
If you are a voter looking for a staunchly secular party that seeks to challenge the religious status quo, why not vote for Meretz or Yesh Atid? If you are on the center-right, then what does Liberman offer that the Gantz-Sa’ar-Eisenkot alliance does not? And of course, if you want the old, ultra-nationalist Liberman, the one who certainly wouldn’t sit with the Islamist Ra’am party, you now have Ben Gvir.
So beyond his sectoral base, it is hard to see where Liberman can go for new voters.
Which brings us to the second challenge, which is demographic. For the past two decades, Liberman has known that while his fortunes with other voters may rise and fall, he has a core of at least five to six seats of immigrants from the FSU who will stay with him through thick and thin.
This base is of course real. It is a base that cares deeply about the civil issues he is fighting for; many can’t marry in the country they fight and die for, and face daily discrimination due to the ultra-Orthodox stronghold over religious institutions. They rightly see Liberman speaking not only their language, but also to their issues.
But as the Russian-speaking community grows ever more assimilated (most have now been in Israel for three decades), and the older immigrants gradually die out, this base too will dwindle. Maybe not in this election – where polling shows this five-to-six-seat base remaining intact – but at some stage in the not-too-distant future.
As Liberman knows all too well, there is only a percentage point or so between five seats and the threshold.
The trouble with being finance minister
To survive, the longest-running party leader in Israel will, once again, need to reinvent himself.
As the minister of finance, he has had a real opportunity to show both substance and statesmanship. The recent release of the party manifesto – itself a rarity in Israeli politics – and the economic messaging of his campaign give some clues as to the brand he is trying to build.
But in an economy facing a rapidly increasing cost of living, it isn’t easy to run in an election as the incumbent finance minister. And while he is clearly not to blame for the bulk of these issues (which are being felt across the world), campaigning on an economic ticket in this climate will be challenging – especially when the situation has worsened on his watch.
Most significantly, these issues are rarely decisive in Israeli elections. Just as we discussed last week, the perceived identity or “tribe” of a leader is often more important than their actions and achievements – even more so when these achievements are flimsy.
As the campaign goes on, Liberman will no doubt be tempted to appeal to identity issues. But with his long-term punching bags, the Haredi parties, in opposition, and his former foes, the Arab parties, in government with him, his go-to playbook of finding an enemy and rabble-rousing may prove more difficult than usual.
So, while it is never wise to bet against a Liberman revival, this looks like his toughest campaign yet.
Simon Davies and Joshua Hantman are partners at Number 10 Strategies, an international strategic, research and communications consultancy, who have polled and run campaigns for presidents, prime ministers, political parties and major corporations across dozens of countries in four continents.
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