Yishai Lieberman Knesset Jan2010 Emil Salman
Shas leader Eli Yishai and Yisrael Beiteinu chair Avigdor Lieberman in the Knesset, January 2010. Photo by Emil Salman
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Eighteen months after it was cobbled together with old rope and rusted bolts, the unholy coalition alliance between ultra-Orthodox politicians and their secular and Russian partners is beginning to fall apart. The person who is likely to pay the cost in full for the breakdown of the alliance is the man who calls both Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu his "natural allies": Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

If he does not find some magic solution by Wednesday, some creative super tanker, something that can put out the blaze of religion and nationalism that has broken out in his government, Netanyahu may find himself losing no matter what happens in the Knesset. And the ones who will force him into the corner are his dear partners; not Kadima in the opposition or even Labor.

In essence, Netanyahu has already lost points. By delaying the decision in the government over the military conversion program, he appeared to be someone who had succumbed to Shas pressure.

Immediately there were whispers that he made a deal with Eli Yishai: The Israel Defense Forces soldiers who would seek conversion through the IDF Rabbinate would be passed on to the Chief Rabbinate in exchange for Shas opposition to the establishment of a public commission of inquiry for the failures in countering the blaze on the Carmel.

Irrespective of the existence of such a deal or not, this is the second time in a month that Netanyahu, the leader of the "national" Likud movement, has appeared as someone who undermines the IDF in order to preserve his coalition.

The first time occurred when he forced the coalition to turn down the bill by MK Israel Hasson (Kadima ) who wanted to punish secular girls who lie in order to evade military conscription. And yesterday was the second time - albeit the whole story will emerge only when Likud votes on Wednesday in the Knesset.

But Netanyahu's troubles with his natural partners are not over. If in the end he does support the bill of MK David Rotem of Yisrael Beiteinu, he will appear as someone who succumbed to the threats of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

On Sunday, at the cabinet meeting, Lieberman made it clear that he is not only fighting for the well being of the IDF soldiers but that his war was on an entire front: "We must break the monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate on conversions in the country," he said, "and as far as I know the army chief rabbi is no heretic, is not a gentile and is not a Reform Jew. He is even Orthodox."

Lieberman took a swipe at Netanyahu: "You favor competition, no? What do you care if there are two bodies, the Army Rabbinate and the Chief Rabbinate, and they compete with each other?"

Netanyahu was pressed. He tried to convince Shas to agree to the original proposal, which had the law being passed in a preliminary reading only on Wednesday, and the legislation would be delayed until the Chief Sephardic Rabbi, Shlomo Amar, found a solution.

"No!" Lieberman insisted. "I will pass it on second and third reading." Netanyahu heard and was pushed even further into the corner.

Simply put, this is a trap set for Netanyahu: If he and his party vote in favor of the bill of MK Rotem, he will find himself in a crisis with the ultra-Orthodox, and at the same time he will grant Lieberman a significant victory among his electorate, the Russians and the secular.

If he votes nay and foils the bill, then Lieberman will win: In his election campaign and in the active Russian media, the foreign minister will present Netanyahu as a slave of the Haredim and as someone who acted against the IDF soldiers who immigrated from the former Soviet Union.

There is also a third option, the worst as far as Netanyahu is concerned: He votes against the bill but the legislation passes anyway with the votes of Yisrael Beiteinu, Labor, Kadima and Meretz, and with the abstention of Likud MKs who will be ashamed to press the red button.

Thus Netanyahu will lose out completely, and it should be remembered that this is only the start: Soon the bill on the yeshiva students' stipends will be brought before the Knesset, and on the horizon lays the bill on civil marriages.