Avigdor Liberman shouldn’t be the focus of national attention in Israel. Yisrael Beiteinu had its worst showing ever in the April 2019 elections, escaping the electoral threshold by just over 30,000 votes. The party’s most dedicated supporters are older immigrants from the former Soviet Union whose children and grandchildren are increasingly, though not seamlessly, integrated into Israeli society and vote for larger parties, namely Likud. And yet, by dint of Benjamin Netanyahu’s very narrow objective — legislated immunity — Liberman was able to stop the prime minister, his former boss, from assembling a government, under the pretext of a confrontation with the ultra-Orthodox over conscription.

Three weeks after the drama unfolded around the coalition deadline, Liberman remains in the spotlight. He has made himself essential to Netanyahu’s challengers in Kachol Lavan, while the prime minister is now out to quash Yisrael Beiteinu once and for all.

Netanyahu is keen to poach votes from Yisrael Beiteinu’s Russian-speaking base. Last week, the prime minister appointed Ariel Bulshtein as his adviser on the Russophone Israeli community. Bulshtein is a Yisrael Hayom columnist who has published scathing criticisms of Liberman’s conduct during coalition negotiations. Likud’s share of the Russian speakers’ vote was comparable to Yisrael Beiteinu in recent elections. But if the prime minister really wants to snuff out Liberman’s party, Netanyahu and Bulshtein will need to work hard to convince Russian Israeli voters that Yisrael Beiteinu does not represent their interests. According to a survey conducted by the Israeli branch of newsru, a Russian language news site, 73 percent of respondents rejected Netanyahu’s claim that Liberman was working to install a left-wing government. So there is a long road ahead for the prime minister as he seeks to maximize his performance with this important electorate.

Liberman won’t readily surrender his home turf. In an interview on Tuesday, he inveighed against Likud’s record with Soviet immigrants. Of course, there’s an element of hypocrisy to Liberman’s critique of the prime minister: Yisrael Beiteinu has sat in every Likud-led government (often alongside ultra-Orthodox parties) in the past twenty years, and even ran a joint ticket with Netanyahu in 2013 despite his supposed betrayal of Russian-speaking Israelis. The interview comes on the heels of news that Liberman was suing Likud activist and pro-Netanyahu Twitter troll Giora Ezra for 140,000 NIS for circulating a rumor that Liberman secretly met Kachol Lavan number two Yair Lapid in Vienna in April. And amid all the controversy, Liberman is polling strongly with his base: 58 percent of respondents to the latest newsru poll said they would vote for Yisrael Beiteinu, giving the party a majority (as opposed to a plurality or near-plurality) of the Russian community for the first time in many years at Likud’s expense. Russians-speakers — largely secular, and often abused by Israel’s religious authorities — were clearly happy to see Yisrael Beiteinu take on the ultra-Orthodox, even if that dispute is largely a vehicle for Liberman to torment the prime minister.

Yisrael Beiteinu may have also won some friends in the opposition when Liberman proposed a national unity government with Likud and Kachol Lavan that would leave the ultra-Orthodox on the outside. Since then, Liberman has doubled down in stating that he would only back a unity government. Still, a lot can change between now and election day, and Kachol Lavan cannot depend solely on the Liberman option.

A unity government would likely dislodge Netanyahu, who is seeking immunity from prosecution, something Kachol Lavan won’t deliver. But a few seats’ difference could make Liberman irrelevant in Netanyahu’s post-election calculations, leaving Kachol Lavan without a plan. Indeed, had a relatively small number of people voted another way in April, or had turnout been higher, Yisrael Beiteinu might have missed the threshold altogether and there would be no second election.

It also bears repeating that Yisrael Beiteinu’s withdrawal from the government over a Gaza ceasefire last November initially appeared to yield dividends for Liberman, only to be forgotten closer to election day. If Netanyahu can suppress interest in Liberman’s secular right-wing politics, he could roll back Yisrael Beiteinu’s early gains. That may become Netanyahu’s most potent form of leverage against Liberman, as Hadashot’s Daphna Liel now reports the prime minister may try to publicly ignore Liberman in order to drive religion and state off the national agenda and stunt Yisrael Beiteinu’s momentum.


With the exception of the 1992 election, in which recent Soviet immigrants helped return Yitzhak Rabin to the prime minister’s office, and 1999, when the community largely backed Ehud Barak, Russian-speaking Israelis have voted overwhelmingly (though not exclusively) for the right. Because of this broad ideological consensus, the distribution of their votes between different right-wing parties played a minimal role in determining who became prime minister. This time, however, Avigdor Liberman is splitting the right-wing camp, making his success critical for Kachol Lavan and his demise desirable to Netanyahu. Russian-speaking Israelis are already a significant demographic, accounting for roughly 16 Knesset seats’ worth of votes. Whatever happens on September 17, because of Liberman’s centrality in the campaign, Russophone voters may actually swing the outcome of the election.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article omitted mention of the 1999 election