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Israel Heads Again to Elections as One Politician Gambles It All

Avigdor Liberman
Avigdor Liberman / Getty Images
• June 1, 2019 1:51 pm

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Five weeks after being sworn in, the 21st Knesset voted to dissolve itself. It's a first for Israeli politics; the country has never held back-to-back elections. Two freshman legislators even burst into tears. One man, Avigdor Liberman, is responsible for both the most recent April 9 elections and the new elections to be held Sept. 17. The question is why? Consensus is building that Liberman brought down the previous government (when he resigned as defense minister) and refused to join a new one in a bid to put himself back on the political map as his influence fades.

Liberman refused to join the government over a proposed military conscription bill for ultra-Orthodox Jews, or haredim (literally "ones who tremble" before God). Liberman's position—that not one clause of the bill be touched—was first viewed as merely an opening position that would soften as the weeks went by. Up to last week's Wednesday midnight deadline, there was a lingering belief that a last-minute deal would be struck.

But Liberman refused to budge, leaving Netanyahu one seat short of the 61 Knesset seats he needed to form a government.

Netanyahu, visibly furious, in a kind of verbal excommunication, announced to the press on Wednesday that Liberman was "on the left now," calling him "a serial destroyer of right-wing governments."

Right-wing pundits have accused Liberman of being a fraudster—tricking his voters into believing he was right-wing when he was not. Others have painted him as irrational, or as narcissistic, reveling in his power at the expense of the entire country. Still others said he was carrying out a personal vendetta against Netanyahu.

But what appears to be driving Liberman is political calculation, a strategy to capitalize on Israel's religious-secular divide to reinvigorate his diminishing popularity.

Secular Jews fear religionization—a term voiced ever more frequently in the media. They feel that ultra-Orthodox Jews want to impose their way of life on everyone. Stoking these fears is the fact that haredim are the fastest growing segment of Israel's population.

Given that mandatory conscription is a rite of passage in Israel, the failure of young haredim to serve in the army is a particularly sore point. They are given deferments for religious study in yeshivas, or seminaries. It started in 1948 when Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, agreed to give deferments for 400 yeshiva students. When quotas were removed by Menachem Begin's Likud government, which needed the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Israel Party for its coalition, the numbers exploded, reaching well over 60,000 deferments today.

Ironically, some of those most critical of haredim on this score are the rank and file Orthodox who serve in the IDF and feel they are being lumped in with the haredim. Indeed, these Orthodox soldiers often go to elite units and disproportionately serve as officers, taking the place once held by kibbutz members as the crème de la crème of the IDF.

There have been many attempts to grapple with the problem of haredi military service over the years. Israel's Supreme Court has twice struck down laws that attempted to do so, once in 2012 and again in 2017. Actually, the conscription law, which was put forward by the Defense Ministry led by Liberman last year, doesn't seriously address the issue of ultra-Orthodox exemption as the quotas it requires are small, with a final goal of 5,737 haredi men to be inducted into the army annually after 10 years (and 1,107 into national service).

But it is as a symbol that the conscription law carries weight. Liberman admitted as much. "The draft law became a symbol … but look at what is happening here," he said last week, pointing to haredi efforts to halt state infrastructure work on the Sabbath.

In retrospect, there were signs of what Liberman was planning. In the middle of the election campaign, Israel Beiteinu's slogan switched. It had been, translated loosely, "Liberman isn't beholden to anyone." Suddenly, it changed to "Liberman: Also right-wing, also secular."

When the mayor of Tiberias started running a "Sabbath bus" against the wishes of the haredi community, Liberman's party publicly supported the idea. Members of the party went to Tiberias to participate in the opening day of the new bus line.

The reason Liberman has latched onto this issue isn't hard to find. In the 2000s, he was a fast-rising star. He established Israel Beiteinu in 1999 and won four seats. In 2006, his party enjoyed a jump to 11 seats, and in 2009 reached a high of 15 seats. Liberman was only 51; he had held important government positions; and likely began to see himself as a potential prime minister. But in 2013, his star began to fade. In 2015, his party won six votes. In April of this year, it was down to five. And that was an achievement, given that many polls had predicted his party wouldn't even pass the electoral threshold.

Will Liberman's strategy work? Netanyahu called a Thursday press conference where he pointed out that Liberman didn't say a word about the conscription law when he joined his government in 2016. (Though Netanyahu didn't mention it, in Israel Beiteinu's party platform of 2013 and 2015 there is barely a mention of the issue of ultra-Orthodox recruitment.)

"This man, out of personal caprice, from personal ambition, changing principles—this man is prepared to take an entire country and to throw it into the whirlpool of elections, to enter us into unnecessary elections, expensive and wasteful. For one reason, to get out [of his situation], a shrinking electorate. He needs something new," Netanyahu said at the press conference.

But while it's clear that the knives will be out for Liberman as Netanyahu tries to erase him from the political map, the first two polls following the coalition's crackup, by Israel's broadcasting authority and Channel 13, show him winning eight and nine seats respectively.

It's a long, long way from June to September and Israel's polls have missed before. Only on Sept. 17 will we know if Liberman's brinkmanship paid off.

No one is yet talking about the real danger. The religious-secular divide is a genuine one. It goes well beyond haredi enlistment to the nature of the Jewish state—with one side arguing it should be suffused with Jewish religious content and one side, well, not. One wants a Third Temple, the other, Denmark on the Mediterranean. A politician on the left, Yair Lapid, has already built a party out of attacking the religious. The worry is that Liberman, a better politician, as proven by his ability to play well with weak hands, might be more successful. He throws open a Pandora's box. The problem will be closing it.

Published under: Israel