The most unpopular popular Israeli politician has returned to center stage. Avigdor Lieberman, the former foreign minister and deputy prime minister, was acquitted this morning in Jerusalem on fraud charges that have been following the Moldova-born firebrand around for the latter part of his political career. The case involved a former ambassador who passed to Lieberman information he had on a police investigation, who Lieberman was then accused of promoting. Though the shadow of scandal never deprived Lieberman of advancement in his own meteoric career–he gave the huge Russian immigrant community a party to rally around, making him a kingmaker in the Knesset–it appeared that his legal trouble had finally caught up with him.
That’s because his former deputy at the Foreign Ministry, Danny Ayalon, had agreed to testify against Lieberman. (Ayalon, who had previously been Israeli ambassador to the U.S. and made a habit of running circles around his leftist antagonists on Twitter, was dropped by Lieberman from the party slate before the last round of elections.) But Lieberman won this battle too–and, it seems, his protracted war with the Israeli legal system. When he was finally hit with the latest charges, in late 2012, Lieberman stepped away from Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and the Foreign Ministry. Netanyahu has held the position of foreign minister for Lieberman in the event he would return. And now he has.
“This chapter is behind me,” Haaretz quotes Lieberman as saying after the acquittal. “I am now focusing on the challenges ahead.”
Lieberman’s political power does not stem from his job title; it’s the other way around. Yet his relative political independence has always been something of a barometer of his electoral strength, and the argument can be made that it’s on the wane, acquittal or no acquittal.
Lieberman started out managing Netanyahu’s campaigns in the early 1990s, and when Netanyahu became prime minister, Lieberman was arguably the Likud Party’s second most powerful member. Yet Lieberman had found a way to tap into the Russian immigrant community’s desire for authentic political representation–Lieberman was himself a Soviet immigrant–in a way that others, like Natan Sharansky, didn’t. In 1999 he formed his own party, Yisrael Beiteinu. As his domestic constituency grew in influence, prime ministers made it a point to find a place for him in their governments, until they started needing Lieberman more than he needed them.
There was always going to be a ceiling of support over Lieberman for demographic reasons. But it was a high ceiling: Russian immigrants account for about 20 percent of Jewish Israelis. Additionally, in an age of fragmented party politics in Israel, Lieberman’s ability to garner 15 or so seats per Knesset was worth steadily more as it became rare for the winning party to even break the 30-seat barrier.
But it also meant Yisrael Beiteinu was perpetually a bridesmaid, and so a year ago Lieberman merged with Likud. He did so because he is younger than the Likud old guard and was positioning himself to one day inherit the Prime Minister’s Office. But Israeli politics is governed by a centripetal force that keeps the Knesset consistently close to the Israeli political center (which is to the right of where most Westerners think it is) and thus militates against the accumulation of overwhelming power in any one party’s hands. Minor parties are also disproportionately powerful in Israel, so larger parties tend to produce diminishing returns after a while.
Because of all that, the new Likud-Beiteinu party did not gain the vote share of the two parties combined; it simply fell into place as a strangely throwback version of Likud, with Bibi and Lieberman at the helm. It is to that party that Lieberman now returns.
Lieberman’s portfolio remains a powerful one, and self-styled “centrist” flash-in-the-pan parties tend to fizzle, so Lieberman may still be better positioned for the long haul than his political rivals. But oh how he has political rivals! In his absence, Israel saw the rise of another secular nationalist–albeit slightly less nationalist–who is seen as far more palatable to the West in Yair Lapid. And the Israeli political scene welcomed the charismatic tech entrepreneur and pro-settlement politician Naftali Bennett, whose new party won 12 seats in the last elections (and briefly made liberal American journalists lose their minds–something he has in common with Lieberman).
On the left, the Israeli Labor Party is showing signs of life with a new leader, Shelly Yachimovich. Tzipi Livni is still hanging around, and her work on the peace negotiations arguably enabled Netanyahu to let her act as foreign minister the way Ehud Barak did when he was defense minister. Speaking of defense minister, Barak’s departure from government opened the space for Moshe Ya’alon to take the defense portfolio, giving Lieberman another powerful rival within Likud.
And yet, Lieberman doesn’t appear too concerned, perhaps because his career has acquired a reputation for indestructibility. Indeed, there is something comical about the way Lieberman’s political career rolls along like a tank despite the scandals, intrigue, and alienation associated with it. His adversaries have always underestimated his toughness and political skills, a mistake that has consistently served him well and may yet continue to do so.