Lieberman: An Alternative to Israel's "Classic Right"?

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Mr. Shmulik Nili, researcher for the Israel Democracy Institute's Guttman Center for Applied Social Research, explains how Avigdor Lieberman is gradually being identified as an important national, political alternative. Lieberman has blurred his position on the traditional Right-Left political spectrum by acknowledging the legitimacy of a Palestinian state, addressing the flaws in Israel's political configuration and more. Nili describes how Lieberman has successfully strengthened his position as a national leader.

Avigdor Lieberman is an anomaly in Israeli politics. His political behavior thoroughly reflects the "Russian" political experience; yet at the same time, he endeavors to cease being a sectoral politician and to reach the national level of Israeli politics. The shift from sectoral to national politics has required him to address the Russian public's core views while adapting his positions to Israel's entire Jewish population. The Russian sector wants a strong leader, who will "know how to handle" security threats without evacuating the territories, and who will successfully address security issues, in general, and "national enemies" in particular.  Not surprisingly, Lieberman's well implemented media strategy focused on these points: from the start, he made sure to address national issues and then gradually shifted from a position that was "distinctly right" to "alternative right". The transition was made through a clever type of hawkishness, which introduced the kind of concrete solutions that the Russian population sought, as alternative policies for the general Jewish population.

At the same time, Lieberman aspires to establish himself as a qualified statesman—one who no longer needs to attack the "elite" as he did in the days that he served as the Director General of the Prime Minister's Office, but rather as a defender of the rule of law, who is being unjustly persecuted by the police; someone who once threatened to bomb the Aswan Dam, but who, today, is prepared to meet with Omar Suleiman, the head of Egyptian intelligence.

Lieberman, like the "classic right", insists on expressing his unyielding opposition to the legacy of the Oslo Accords and to such measures as the unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip, while at the same time proposing alternative policies that clearly distinguish him from that very same camp. This is the main reason that he has substituted his original plan to expel Israeli Arabs with the proposal to exchange territories, which means that he acknowledges the legitimacy of a Palestinian state. This is also the reason that his demands to demolish Palestinian homes and refugee camps in Gaza have been replaced with policies that are more befitting of a statesman, such as stationing a NATO taskforce there.

Another way in which Lieberman has blurred his position on the traditional Right-Left political spectrum (although he is still clearly positioned on the right) is by addressing the flaws in Israel's political configuration—a seemingly non-ideological issue. These reforms are not limited to the structure of the regime. In contrast to the public sphere and political culture, which are perceived as ill-conceived, lacking vision, stability and long-term planning, Lieberman has attempted to present alternative processes that are both unique to Yisrael Beiteinu and that blur his position on Israel's political spectrum. For example, the issue of reforming the structure of the regime was given prominence as part of the short-lived political alliance between Yisrael Beiteinu and Kadima; and not coincidently, it was in the framework of this coalition that Lieberman specifically chose the title of "Minister of Strategic Threats". Strategic threats require strategy, something that Israeli politics lacks and that Lieberman presumes to provide.

Lieberman has tried to strengthen his image as a political alternative in two fundamental ways. The first is by constantly presenting concrete facts to support his policy positions as opposed to intangible pronouncements that are likely to be dismissed as empty slogans. When considered within specific contexts, those concrete positions sound sensible indeed, but they are intentionally never examined within a broader context. For example, the bill that calls for differential tuition in institutes of higher education on the basis of the extent of each student's army service—which Lieberman intends to pass in the next Knesset—seems reasonable, indeed, but it does not address the high cost of such a program, nor does it include any mechanisms to ensure that such preferential treatment would not harm other students, such as those who are unable to serve in the army for medical reasons.

The other method for strengthening Lieberman's position as a national leader, is to consistently focus on what he perceives to be the gravest threat to the Jewish collectivity in order to portray himself as its protector ("the only one that understands Arabic," in other words, the language of force). It is difficult to recall any instances in which Lieberman addressed the grievances of the Israeli Arabs—inequality in education, welfare, infrastructure, etc.—just as it is difficult to find other countries that demand that their citizens take an oath of allegiance, which clearly targets a particular social group (it is also difficult to understand what would happen to the Arab Israelis who would swear their allegiance to the State of Israel and yet would be moved to the future Palestinian state in accordance with Lieberman's plan). It is much easier to recall instances in which Lieberman has spoken out against Arab extremists or Arab Knesset Members that oppose decisions that are supported by a majority of the general Israeli public. A single example is sufficient: in May 2006, Lieberman declared that "the collaborators within the Knesset should share the same fate as those who collaborated with the Nazis."

Reference to Israeli Arabs as the enemy, which is a unifying element within the Lieberman camp, as well as Lieberman's efforts to employ a clever form of hawkishness in order to set himself apart from other rightist parties, are both part of the same strategy to complete the transition from sectoral to national politics. This unique combination is the primary means for promoting the electoral combination between the Russian public—the core supporters of Yisrael Beiteinu in general, and of Lieberman, in particular—and the general Israeli public, which is gradually identifying Lieberman as an important political alternative. Although he continues to explicitly and implicitly feed on the political traditions and views of the Russian sector, his political activity can no longer be understood separately from his efforts to set himself apart from other rightist leaders. These efforts—concerning a presidential regime, a territory-swap with the Palestinians, NATO activities, etc.—complement his attempt to redefine himself as an "entirely different type of politician", which is the secret to understanding his electoral strength.


Mr. Shmulik Nili is a researcher for IDI's Guttman Center for Surveys.