The recent uptick of interethnic violence in Israel is likely to benefit Avigdor Lieberman, one of the biggest losers of the last elections.
Lieberman is the head of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, whose base is the large number of Russian-speaking immigrants from the former Soviet Union. A former member of Likud, he is notorious for crude xenophobia against Palestinians and Israeli Arabs. He reached the zenith of his power in 2009, when Yisrael Beiteinu received 15 seats- the third largest number in the Knesset– and Lieberman became Foreign Minister. Yisrael Beiteinu ran on a joint list with Likud in 2013 and received 13 seats, but Lieberman left once again during Operation Protective Edge, criticizing Netanyahu’s handling of the war from the right.
This year however, Yisrael Beiteinu experienced a crash in the polls, due to a variety of factors including the decline in the “Russian bloc” as the children of older Russian immigrants have begun to integrate into Israeli society, a massive corruption probe of leading Yisrael Beiteinu figures, and the rise of Naftali Bennett’s right-wing Jewish Home party. Overall, these factors resulted in a reduction of Yisrael Beiteinu’s parliamentary strength to 6 seats.
In a surprise move that shocked almost all commentators, Lieberman decided not to join Netanyahu’s 2015 coalition. The general consensus chalked this up to the infamously bad working relationship between Lieberman and Prime Minister Netanyahu.
However, with the rise in terrorist attacks within Israel, this curious move appears to have paid off for Lieberman. The reasoning is clear: it is much easier and more convincing for a politician to criticize a government when the politician is not part of it. This is because those in the coalition are obliged to support the government’s actions, or else they risk causing the government to fall and potentially triggering a new election. We saw this during Operation Protective Edge, when a surge in right-wing sentiment largely passed over Yisrael Beiteinu, at least in part because of their shared list with Likud, with the result that Bennett’s Jewish Home party saw the largest jump in support.
Today, the tables have turned. With most Israeli voters holding a negative perception of Netanyahu’s handling of the current crisis, it is Lieberman who is rated as the best candidate to deal with Israeli security at this time, 22% favorability to Bennett’s 17% and Netanyahu’s 15%. Lieberman has largely played his cards correctly, calling on Netanyahu to resign as a failure; however, even if he had said nothing he would likely have seen a significant boost in polling, solely due to his position outside the coalition and his anti-Arab reputation. Indeed, there is no reason to believe that his support will remain inflated after the current wave of violence subsides — for example, despite polling as high as 20 seats at the height of Protective Edge, Jewish Home leader Bennett finished with only 8 seats in the 2015 election. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that the current crisis has given Lieberman a new lease on life, and his bizarre rantings against Israeli Arab citizens and MKs will likely find a more sympathetic audience in the months ahead.