The Israeli Knesset may call an early election this week in light of ongoing spat between the Israel Beiteinu and Likud parties. However, having Israelis go to the polls in September would be completely pointless in light of the clear mandate Israelis gave the right in the April 9 election.
So how is it that Israel Beiteinu, which has five seats in the 120-seat Knesset, is dragging an entire nation into this mess? How is it that a small party’s extortionist demands can result in such a drastic political development?
The answer lies with Israel Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman’s sense of power. He is convinced that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will not be able to swear in a government without him, not now and not after the next election.
Lieberman has always had a de facto monopoly over the so-called “Russian electorate” in Israel, and it is this that has contributed to his sense of power even during tough political times.
Russian-speaking voters have allied themselves with Lieberman because other Israeli politicians have repeatedly ignored them. The left stopped caring about them because they have right-wing views, and the right has simply given up trying to convince them to ditch Lieberman.
About 75 percent of Russian-speaking voters say they support the right, but this electorate is significantly underrepresented in right-wing political circles despite being one of its main pillars of support, along with national religious voters, who are duly represented in many right-wing circles.
The neglect of Russian-speaking voters dealt a crushing blow to two right-wing parties in the April 9 election. The New Right, headed by Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, did not place any Russian speakers on their candidate list. This was part of why the party failed to pass the minimum electoral threshold and won zero Knesset seats.
Likewise, the Likud, too, ignored this electorate (not for the first time), with zero campaigning on the Russian street and zero Russian candidates. This was a tactical decision, the idea being to not take votes from Lieberman so as to minimize the risk of Israel Beiteinu not passing the electoral threshold.
This was a mistake that might cost all of us dearly, because Lieberman and Netanyahu are now engaged in a tit-for-tat that could result in a new election being called, sending millions of shekels down the drain. Had Likud courted the Russian vote, the party may have gained another five seats.
Former Likud Prime Minister Menachem Begin brought into his tent voters of Middle Eastern and North African descent, and this ensured the Likud would continue to be in power for many more years.
The right must strike a similar bond with Israelis from the former Soviet Union. It is high time that the Israeli right tapped the vast potential of this group, welcomed them into its fold and gave them leadership positions. Likud, being the party in power, should lead this effort. Hopefully, this will result in a small party like Israel Beiteinu no longer being necessary— and no longer being in a position to make over-the-top demands.
Ariel Bolstein is the founder of the Israel-advocacy organization Faces of Israel.
This column first appeared in Israel Hayom.