The Received wisdom was that there would be two main political beneficiaries from Operation Cast Lead: Ehud Barak as Defence Minister, and Binyamin Netanyahu, who could claim prescience over his warnings that Hamas had to be confronted.
But while Barak’s Labour has slightly improved its position and Netanyahu’s Likud is still ahead of Kadima, the unexpected beneficiary has been Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beitenu party If recent polls are anything to go by, Lieberman has surged ahead of his previous marginal status and is now tying with Labour for third place.
The former bouncer’s growing popularity seems to be based less on his own merits and more on dissatisfaction with the three main candidates.
A few years ago, Lieberman was ostracized as an extreme right-winger. But many Israelis who previously supported the various peace proposals are now frustrated by what seems to be the absence of any realistic bilateral solution to the conflict with the Palestinians. They are, it seems, willing to give Lieberman a chance.
Very few voters have read his proposals — in effect for the populations and land of Israeli Jews and Arabs to be separated — in any detail. But he radiates a self-confidence, intelligence and sense of purpose lacking in his rivals. Even a lengthy police investigation into his finances, stepped up this week, has failed to deter prospective voters.
Israelis are casting around for something different and Lieberman is riding this wave.
There will be profound implications If Yisrael Beitenu knocks Labour into fourth place. The winner — probably Netanyahu — will find it hard to form a coalition without giving Lieberman a significant share of power.
Netanyahu has been speaking of forming a centrist, national-unity coalition and hyping his ability to build good relations with the Obama administration. Lieberman’s presence will not make that easy.
But if Netanyahu tries to form a coalition without him, that will mean bringing in Kadima and Labour, potentially causing Likud’s right-wing to erupt in rebellion.