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In Israeli election, a nation votes but one man could decide

RISHPON, Israel — Israel is headed to another watershed election next week, but the most decisive vote may be the one cast in the days immediately afterward — by a tough-talking, ­barrel-chested frenemy of embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Avigdor Liberman, a hawkish former defense minister, blocked his erstwhile ally Netanyahu this spring from forming a governing coalition, sending Israel back to an unprecedented do-over election.

Now, it is predicted that Liberman and his political party, ­Yisrael Beiteinu, will win enough parliamentary seats Tuesday to potentially determine whether Netanyahu will continue his historic tenure as prime minister or be replaced by his chief challenger, former military chief Benny Gantz.

At stake in the election is not only the balance between religious and secular visions for Israel’s future. Netanyahu has promised, if reelected, to upend the longtime status quo in the occupied territories by annexing large portions of the West Bank, an initiative that would be popular with right-wing voters but could incur Arab outrage. When he announced these grand designs, he cited the approval of the Trump administration, slated to release its new Middle East peace plan after the Israeli election.

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Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu was rushed off stage after rockets fired from Gaza triggered warning sirens. Israel retaliated with strikes Sept. 11. (Video: Reuters)

And personally for Netanyahu, who this summer became Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, the election could determine whether he faces prosecution in three criminal cases involving allegations of fraud, bribery and breach of trust. Reports suggest that he is counting on securing a governing coalition so he might pass legislation to help him avoid prosecution.

Liberman, born in Moldova, has long been the voice of many Israelis who migrated from Russia and other former Soviet republics. Right-wing on national security but fiercely secular, he has made inroads with the wider population, especially after scuttling Netanyahu’s coalition efforts in May by refusing to join a government with ultra-Orthodox Jewish and other religiously oriented parties.

“I will not sit in a government with the ultra-Orthodox or the fanatics,” Liberman recently promised a crowd of about 100 affluent and influential native Israelis who turned out at an expansive villa north of Tel Aviv to hear his campaign pitch.

As he spoke, the lights glimmered off the swimming pool and a sumptuous buffet beckoned guests dressed in finery. The glamorous setting in Rishpon, one of Israel’s most exclusive communities, made for an unusual campaign event for an unlikely political power broker.

In heavily Russian-accented Hebrew, Liberman, a former nightclub bouncer, cautioned there were only two possible outcomes to the election. In one, he warned, Netanyahu’s Likud party wins big, enabling the prime minister to form a new right-wing coalition controlled by the ultra-Orthodox and other religious factions. In the other scenario, Liberman’s party wins enough votes that he can demand that Israel’s largely secular mainstream parties join forces. 

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Recent opinion polls suggest Liberman could win as many as 10 seats, doubling his current number. With the ruling Likud party and its chief rival, the Blue and White party, running neck-and-neck and both certain to fall well short of the 61 seats required to win an outright majority, Liberman could be the kingmaker. 

“It seems that the prospects are high for a government with Liberman determining who the other partners will be,” said Dan Avnon, political science chairman at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. 

Liberman’s mounting influence has the other candidates concerned, particularly Netanyahu. Over the past few months, the prime minister has made a noticeable effort to siphon support from Liberman’s traditional base, holding rallies for Russian-speaking immigrants, posting billboards of himself with a beaming Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, and even visiting Ukraine last month. On Thursday, Netanyahu met Putin in Sochi, Russia, saying the trip was for important security talks “in the face of the attempts by Iran and its proxies to attack us.”

More than 1 million Russian-speakers with Jewish heritage moved to Israel after the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. Recent government statistics show there are about 1.5 million Russian-speakers in Israel, some 17.25 percent of the total population. 

In the past, they largely voted for Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, established 20 years ago, because of its focus on immigrant issues.

But today, particularly among the second generation or those who came as children, the voting pattern more often mirrors that of mainstream Israeli society. Liberman also saw his support erode for a time as he faced corruption charges — he was later acquitted — and gained a reputation in some quarters as a political opportunist.

His more vocal conflict recently with the ultra-Orthodox, however, has revived his standing and extended it beyond his former support base.

“I will vote for Liberman this time. I still trust him,” said Irena Braginsky, 70, who arrived in Israel from Ukraine nearly 30 years ago. She said that Netanyahu had done little to help people like her over the years, giving in to the ultra-Orthodox on issues such as shuttering stores and public transportation on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath. 

“Me and my husband have no car and there are no buses on Shabbat, so we are stuck here in the city every weekend,” she said as she sat with a group of friends in the center of Bat Yam, a Tel Aviv suburb with myriad Russian supermarkets, bookstores and signs. “Everything is closed. You can’t buy anything. And all that happened because Netanyahu does whatever the religious parties tell him to do.” 

But Braginsky’s friend Rita Muzikant, 73, also an immigrant from Ukraine, said she no longer supported Liberman after voting for him in previous elections. 

“Only Likud, only Bibi can be prime minister of Israel and keep our country safe,” she said, using Netanyahu’s nickname. “He’s a strong leader, and the leaders of other countries respect him.” 

Konstantin Topchanko, 49, said he was turned off by both Liberman and Netanyahu. 

“I will vote for Blue and White,” he said. “I came to Israel 20 years ago and have worked really hard. Meanwhile, the ultra-Orthodox pray all day long and live off my taxes. . . . I want our country to be modern and secular.” He said a vote for Netanyahu was essentially a vote for his ultra-Orthodox allies.

Back at the villa in Rishpon, Liberman was looking to take advantage of those same frustrations. He talked about the economy, the Palestinians and the wider Arab world but always returned to the influence of Israel’s religious groups. 

“I’m not against Haredim,” he said, using the Hebrew term to describe the ultra-Orthodox. “My family is mixed religious and secular. My wife is Orthodox. My daughter is Orthodox. On Friday night we make kiddush, but on Saturday morning, if there is no election, I go play tennis.”

Then, in his signature deadpan voice, Liberman added: “In my house, I only eat kosher. Outside, I only eat what tastes good.”

His quip drew laughs from the crowd, before he resumed skewering the ultra-Orthodox, who represent 10 percent of Israel’s population, for failing to contribute to the economy by choosing religious studies over employment and for seeking to infringe on secular freedoms, for instance, by seeking to close mini-markets on Saturdays.

“I am not against the Haredim,” he said. “I’m just against them trying to control my life.”

One of the guests, who provided only her first name, Hadassah, said she would give Liberman a chance this time. 

“He’s the best person to oppose Netanyahu,” she said. “He’s promised to force all the sides into a broad, secular coalition, and that is what Israel needs.” 

McAuley reported from Bat Yam. Yael Branovsky in Bat Yam contributed to this report.

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