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Avigdor Lieberman Won't Be Israel's Next Prime Minister, But He May Decide Who Is


A onetime ally of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has become his biggest adversary. Avigdor Lieberman's party probably won't get enough votes in Tuesday's election for Parliament to make him prime minister, but he might be able to block Netanyahu from keeping the top job. His issue - fighting the power of religious parties. NPR's Daniel Estrin reports from Tel Aviv.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Avigdor Lieberman is a tough-talking nationalist. He's an immigrant to Israel from the former Soviet Union. He's known for labeling Palestinian Arab lawmakers in Israel as terrorists and repeatedly threatening to attack Palestinian leaders. But now his campaign videos identify a new enemy.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Foreign language spoken).

ESTRIN: You like horror movies? - his campaign ad asks, and presents a roster of bearded ultra-Orthodox Jewish politicians.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through translation) Lieberman - yes to a Jewish state, no to a state of Jewish religious law.

ESTRIN: Lieberman's campaign slogan is attracting voters like 38-year-old Assaf Stern. He voted for Benjamin Netanyahu before but now supports Lieberman.

ASSAF STERN: Lieberman - he wants to make the government without ultra-Orthodox, that I think it's a good thing, political and ultra-Orthodox not supposed to be together.

ESTRIN: Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing government has partnered with ultra-Orthodox parties for years. They helped give him a majority in Parliament, and in return, get healthy budgets for their religious institutions and power to boost the role of religion in public life on things like family law or closing public services on the Sabbath. Lieberman saw growing public resentment about that among both left-wing and right-wing voters. Amit Segal is a leading Israeli political commentator.

AMIT SEGAL: The only way to defeat Netanyahu in a very hawkish country in terms of security is only by taking the discourse and the election to domestic issues. And in Israel, in the right wing, the vast majority of Netanyahu's supporters want a public transportation on weekends or demands civil marriage or at least the opportunity to have civil marriage. And this election campaign is based on the principle of Avigdor Lieberman that the old left and right camps are dead.

ESTRIN: This came to a head in a dramatic moment after the last elections this spring. Netanyahu needed Lieberman's party to secure a majority in Parliament. As the midnight deadline approached, Lieberman refused.


AVIGDOR LIEBERMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

ESTRIN: He told reporters Netanyahu had caved to ultra-Orthodox demands. Lieberman blocked the parliamentary majority, and even Israelis who never liked his hawkish policies liked him for standing up to Bibi Netanyahu. Filmmaker Nurit Kedar made a documentary about Lieberman.

NURIT KEDAR: People really appreciate him now because he did something. He left Bibi.

ESTRIN: When Lieberman wouldn't support him, Netanyahu pushed for new elections, taking place next week. Voter Yossi Elbaz says he thinks Netanyahu is a shoo-in, but he wants Lieberman to be there to dictate the terms.

YOSSI ELBAZ: But I didn't see anyone else that can replace Bibi, but I don't want Bibi to win - to be inside. If I can put Lieberman in the place that he would decide what to do, what is going to be the goals of this government, it would be enough for me.

ESTRIN: In a tight race between Netanyahu and centrist former General Benny Gantz, Lieberman's party could be the deciding factor and call the shots. Lieberman has already said what he wants for Israel's next government. He wants Netanyahu to build a coalition with him and Gantz and keep ultra-Orthodox religious parties out.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Tel Aviv.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUER'S "NIROST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.