BAT YAM, Israel — Israel’s top diplomat, the political brawler Avigdor Lieberman, has been grabbing headlines for years with outlandish statements. Just this week, the Moldovan-born foreign minister said Arab Israelis who support terrorist attacks ought to be beheaded. He mentioned using an ax.
For a seasoned diplomat, Lieberman eschews subtlety. In January, he called Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan an “anti-Semitic neighborhood bully” and threw in a reference to Nazi Brownshirts in 1930s Germany. In December, after Stockholm decided to push for a Palestinian state, he announced that he was “boycotting” Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström, which surprised Wallström, who said she had no intention of meeting her Israeli counterpart.
“Relations in the Middle East are a lot more complex than the self-assembly furniture of Ikea,” he said.
Many European diplomats have described Lieberman as a clown prince — a loose cannon, but still a cannon. Israel’s TV satirists lampoon him as a mafia don or nonsensical. In Washington’s Foggy Bottom, he was essentially a persona non grata during the tenure of former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, who kept Lieberman at arm’s length.
Now Lieberman’s days as Israel’s face to the world may be numbered. According to the latest polls, his party may have barely enough support to get into parliament.
Lieberman is not just a diplomat but leader of the Israel is Our Home party (Yisrael Beiteinu in Hebrew), whose electoral base is dominated by Russian-speaking immigrants from the former Soviet Union who poured into Israel in the 1990s. All told, more than 1 million Russian-speakers came, transforming Israeli society. Lieberman immigrated to Israel in 1978 from what is now Moldova.
Now after two decades of ascendance, Lieberman and his party are in free-fall, making him one of several power brokers who may find themselves in diminished roles after Tuesday’s national election, which is expected to be a nail-biter.
The main event features Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing Likud party against a surprisingly strong challenge by Isaac Herzog, leader of the centrist Labor Party. He and his running mate, the former justice minister and peace negotiator Tzipi Livni, are running on a joint ticket called Zionist Union.
In Israel’s parliamentary system, the top two parties and their leaders may dominate, but they cannot govern without support from a patchwork quilt of smaller parties, which include ultra-Orthodox Jewish movements overseen by elderly rabbis, European-style socialists, ultra-nationalist right-wingers, a secular group dominated by people who care about Tel Aviv housing prices, and a coalition of Arab Israelis that could emerge as the third-largest party.
In Netanyahu’s current government, Lieberman demanded the post of foreign minister. That appointment was sidelined for a year when Lieberman went on trial on fraud charges; he was acquitted. In the aftermath of this election, Lieberman might join whoever wins in the governing coalition — but only if he survives the vote.
In the early 1990s, many Russian Jews settled in towns like the seaside city of Bat Yam. Filled with delis, old-school barber shops and cheap clothing stores, it is here that Lieberman is hoping for salvation and support.
“Only Lieberman, only Lieberman,” said Gregory Davido, owner of a Russian supermarket. “This country needs someone like Lieberman because he is strong.”
Among the jars of Polish pickles, pickled herring and a dizzying array of vodkas, Davido said his vote has nothing to do with the fact that Lieberman speaks Russian.
“Lieberman is charismatic, he is strong, he says what means and does what he says,” the merchant said between long drags on a cigarette.
Lieberman’s supporters say that he has worked hard to build ties in Africa, China and India, that he has opened more than a dozen new consulates and embassies, and that although he may appear a bit eccentric, his word means something.
“I am Russian, and Lieberman is Russian. We have a different mentality to most people in this country,” said Ella Trubichin, who runs a small store selling socks, bras and panties on Bat Yam’s main shopping street.
She said she wouldn’t mind seeing Lieberman as prime minister.
That dream might have to be deferred. Just as the current campaigns were getting underway, Lieberman’s party was stung by another corruption scandal, undermining his support and making non-Russian Israelis wary of him.
“Lieberman is too corrupt,” said Boris Shapira, who moved from Ukraine to Bat Yam in 1990. “And we don’t even need a Russian party any more; it is really only for the older people. The younger generation is already fully Israeli and will vote for other parties that represent them better.”
Recent polls predict only four to six seats for Lieberman’s party, compared with 13 seats in 2013, when he combined forces with Netanyahu.
Political analysts say it is not Lieberman’s more sensational comments that have gotten him into trouble, but the changing Russian electorate, the corruption probe and the fact that Lieberman might have been outflanked on the right and squeezed out of the center — a sign of the dynamism of Israeli politics, if you will.
“Lieberman’s advocacy for beheadings are nothing new,” said Zeev Hanin, a professor at Ariel University, in a Jewish settlement in the West Bank. In the past and during the current campaign, Lieberman has advocated for the death penalty for terrorist attacks against Israelis and even has put up billboards calling for the measure.
“Lieberman is extreme right in the system of European models, but in the Israeli system he is considered moderate right,” Hanin said.
Elhanan Ramshtick, 24, shook his head when asked who might be getting his vote in next week’s race. “I have no clue who to vote for,” he said in broken Hebrew. A salesman in a cellphone store, he moved to Israel from Belarus in 2012.
“But I don’t think I should vote for someone just because they speak Russian,” he said. “I should pick someone who will do something good for this country.”
Anne Gearan in Washington contributed to this report.