Analysis

Israeli Defense Minister's Trip to the Grocery Store Throws the Government Into Turmoil

Lieberman's weekend shopping trip is a declaration of war

Illustration: Lieberman points a tank gun at an ultra-Orthodox lawmaker at a Tiv Ta'am grocery store.
Amos Biderman

Uzi Landau, a former MK and minister affiliated with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, once ridiculed the “northies” – snobby residents of upscale north Tel Aviv – the leftists and anyone else who wasn’t part of the “national camp.” He cast about – this was approximately 15 years ago – for an appropriate image to convey his disgust, and bingo! “They are the elites,” he averred, “who do not display solidarity with what is happening in the country. The only thing that interests them is drinking coffee with a croissant or having wine and cheese.”

His comments sparked a furor. Proprietors of wine bars and delis vented their anger on air in droves, and the residents of north Tel Aviv protested. Landau became enamored of his bon mot and reprised it repeatedly. “People of cheese and wine,” he would snort when asked to characterize the member of the other political camp.

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This week, following Lieberman’s Shabbat shopping visit to an Ashdod branch of the 24/7 Tiv Ta’am supermarket chain, someone reminded the defense minister of his former colleague’s remark. Lieberman didn’t remember it. “I’m from the Judean Desert,” he said, referring to his home in the West Bank settlement of Nokdim, “and I really like cheese and wine. On Shabbat I play tennis, and on the way home I stop at a store in Jerusalem to buy some terrific cheeses.”

The past few weeks have pretty much mapped out the contours of the next election campaign. Despite the prayers of Yesh Atid leader MK Yair Lapid, the issue of religion-and-state will certainly not be the only theme, although its presence will be felt intensely. The fear of the ultra-Orthodox parties of a Yesh Atid victory over Likud, and their intra-coalition wrangling with Lieberman, which has become far more hostile of late, is affording some of us some moments of satisfaction.

One such moment was played out in Ashdod, courtesy of the defense minister and his entourage. His perfectly normal act of weekend shopping – which only in Israel is headline news – is shaking up the coalition, some of whose members are demanding the prime minister’s intervention. What this shows is that Yisrael Beiteinu intends to run independently in the next election.

Lieberman’s cheesy provocation (and in Tiv Ta’am, of all places, where one can also procure pork) demonstrated that he has made a strategic decision: to go it alone, and with full force. True, in a situation in which unification in the center-left camp occurs – between Zionist Union and Yesh Atid, for example – the right will certainly be capable of retaliating in kind. But it’s quite apparent that the first scenario isn’t going to take place, nor will the second one happen either.

Lieberman told interlocutors this week that he wasn’t out to provoke or quarrel – but that he had no choice. “The status quo [relating to matters of religion and state] is being grossly trampled,” he explained. “It started with the cancellation of the Western Wall arrangement [involving egalitarian worship at the holy site]. Just like that, I come to the cabinet meeting and see it on the agenda without a prior announcement. Afterward came the crisis over Israel Railways’ repair work on Shabbat. And then the conversion [to Judaism] law and the arbitration [of civil disputes] in the rabbinical courts. They’re going crazy..”

On the issue of legislation barring supermarkets from opening on the Sabbath, he instructed his MKs to vote against the bill in the Knesset. The coalition seemed to be on the brink of collapsing, but Lieberman didn’t blink. Brinkmanship was his game. To his delight, the coalition won the day. He intended to leave it at that and move on. But then Ashdod Municipality inspectors distributed closure orders to stores in the Big shopping center on the city’s outskirts, which has been in business for two years, and operates on the Sabbath. And the city’s flourishing Tiv Ta’am branch, which opened in 2003 and most of whose employees are from the former Soviet Union, was visited by municipal inspectors (Jews, by the way) on that same Saturday.

As head of a party almost all of whose voters are from that community, and who are constantly becoming more integrated into Israeli society and its general political parties, Lieberman decided to employ unconventional weaponry – the Sabbath, and chose that day to pay a ministerial visit to the store’s fromagerie. He kept his distance from the sausage section, though. Even the bearer of the secular banner has red lines. At least for now.

Sing a song of protest

This May will mark the second anniversary of Lieberman’s appointment as defense minister. His judicious behavior, reprising the style of his predecessor, Moshe Ya’alon, isn’t garnering him the electoral acclaim he’d hoped for from the ultra-prestigious post. All recent polls forecast four or five seats for his party in an election, down from the six it received in the 2015 election. Four is on the brink, and would put the party on the edge of the electoral threshold for entering the Knesset.

Everyone is wrong big-time, Lieberman insists – I have at least nine seats. He’s referring to an in-depth survey he commissioned recently, combined with gut feelings, a wealth of experience and a personal knowledge of the grass-roots situation. We won’t argue with him. To an outside observer, however, he seems to be waging a desperate battle to stop the leakage of votes to sister parties on the right.

“How did people expect me to behave?” he said this week in a conversation. “I’m not trying to be contrarian and I’m not looking for pointless confrontations. In the government, I try not to quarrel with anyone. But going to shopping centers on Shabbat, meeting friends in cafes, hanging out – that’s part of the culture of the immigrants from Russia. The shopping center doesn’t bother anyone, it’s near an industrial zone. Why close it? And what am I supposed to do when 80 Tiv Ta’am employees, who are my constituency, could lose their jobs?”

His analysis takes into account that a municipal election will be held this year in Ashdod. The city has a religiously observant mayor, Yehiel Lasri, who is running for another term. It is home to a large community of immigrants from the former Soviet Union there, but also to quite a few Haredim.

“The Haredim vote in elections at a rate of 120 percent,” he says, amused by his joke, “the Russians, only 60 percent. As a result, half the city council is ultra-Orthodox. They wield plenty of influence there.”

On Sunday, after the cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu invited Lieberman for a talk, and asked him to calm down. “Bibi has no gripes with me,” Lieberman related afterward. “I explained my motives to him, I told him I wasn’t out to provoke. But Haredi activism can’t remain without a response from me. I also have voters to consider.”

Arye Dery and Avigdor Lieberman at the Knesset.
Emil salman

When the leaders of the coalition parties met after the cabinet meeting for their weekly session, Lieberman was a no-show. Netanyahu also asked the other ministers to turn down the heat. “It’s liable to destroy us, to tear us apart internally,” he warned his coalition partners.

Interior Minister and Shas leader Arye Dery defended his position: “Even Yair Lapid, whose father did the worst things to us [to the Haredim], waited until Saturday evening [to make an appearance at a store]. Tommy Lapid, of blessed memory, would never have dared to do what Lieberman did to us on Shabbat.”

Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman and MK Moshe Gafni, the heads of the United Torah and Shabbat Judaism faction – that’s its official full name – in the Knesset, were silent. Though it’s the same Shabbat, there’s a division of labor between the Haredi groups. When Litzman climbed a tall ladder on the issue of Israel Railways’ work on Saturday, to the point of resigning from the government – the voice of Dery and his Shas colleagues was barely heard. Now they’ve done a rotation. Dery screamed to the high heavens, declared that he’s severing contact with his old friend, Lieberman (interesting to see how long that will last, if it’s still lasting), while his two Ashkenazi colleagues are taking a neutral stance. Occasionally they’ll mumble a reprimand of the wayward minister.

The next hurdle (following the vote on the Budget Law, which is expected to pass) will be a military-draft bill. It won’t come up until the Knesset’s summer session, between June and August, but time passes quickly. UTJ and Shas are demanding the annulment of Lapid’s legislation from the previous government (which subjected Haredim to the draft for the first time) and the return of the status quo ante.

On this issue, Lieberman wears two hats: head of Yisrael Beiteinu and minister of defense. In both cases, he’s conveying a willingness to compromise. “We need to see the final version of the bill,” he said. “Every word and every comma is important. I hope they don’t overdo it.” And if they do, he was asked, then what? “Then there will be a blowup,” he responded. He didn’t seem to want things to come to that pass. To put it mildly.

If the Ashdod move was clever and calculated, aiming to preserve his constituency, Lieberman’s assault this week on songwriter Yehonatan Geffen appeared less judicious. The defense minister must certainly know that he doesn’t have the authority to tell Army Radio what to broadcast and what not to broadcast. Geffen wrote a song in which he tastelessly compared Ahed Tamimi, the Palestinian teen protester who’s in Israeli custody, to Anne Frank. Lieberman called Geffen “a drunk” and his song “nauseating.” Army Radio interviews members of Fatah and Hamas figures every week. The defense minister hasn’t ordered a ban of them. Yet.

Peace then

Avi Buskila, 43, is one of five contenders for the leadership of Meretz, along with the current leader, Zahava Galon, MKs Ilan Gilon and Tamar Zandberg, and social activist Avi Dabush. Buskila stepped down as director general of Peace Now on January 14, a position he’d held for a year and nine months, and abandoned it hastily in circumstances I’ll recount immediately.

The general view about his race for the party leadership, like that of Dabush, is that they’re out to improve their situation in the contest for a place on the Meretz Knesset slate for the next election. A dry run, ahead of the wet one.

What’s always disturbing in these cases is the absence of modesty and humility. To seek the leadership of a party and a Knesset faction without so much as one day of parliamentary experience, without the slightest idea of what it is to manage a party and a Knesset faction, is the embodiment of hollow ambition compounded by a lack of self-awareness.

When Buskila resigned his post at Peace Now, its board of directors, a group of eight men and women, received a laconic email message of a few lines from him. In it, he informed them of his immediate resignation, in the wake of his decision to contest the Meretz leadership in a March 22 vote. He didn’t see fit to devote even a five-minute phone call to each of the directors. Only one of them, chairwoman Irena Steinfeld, heard about his decision in advance.

The others were stunned. Three days before Buskila’s announcement, a meeting of the directors was held with his participation, in which projects and plans for the year ahead were discussed. And suddenly, poof. Some of the leaders recently spoke to an interlocutor and couldn’t find the words to express the full scale of their sense of betrayal and disappointment. One of them sent back a biting email.

They didn’t understand the urgency. The Meretz election will be held in two months. Buskila could have at least convened a meeting before leaving, and bowed out in an orderly, polite and respectable manner. They inferred that the Peace Now position had only been a springboard to the Knesset for him. The moment he saw himself in reach of the next rung of the ladder, nothing below interested him any longer. There are people like that. The Peace Now directors have not come out against him; they are respectable folks. They don’t want it to look as if they are interfering in the Meretz primary.

I asked Buskila for his response to the complaints. He wasn’t surprised, he was familiar with them. He even mentioned the name of one of the directors and accused him of leaking the story to me. He was wrong. In our conversation, which he termed “off the record,” Buskila elaborated on his approach, amid much boasting concerning his performance in the organization.

I asked him why he didn’t want to be quoted. He replied that he had no wish to get into a war. I wondered whether he thinks he has the necessary qualifications to head a party, in the absence of any political and parliamentary experience. He claimed to have many qualifications, including from his army service. I asked him to formulate a reaction and comment on his colleagues’ allegations, which I read out to him.

“I will not formulate any reaction,” he said in a threatening tone of voice, “but if that makes it into a column, I will react.”

Okay, our breath is bated.