Analysis

Replacing Netanyahu Is Crucial for Israeli Democracy. This Is the Wrong Way to Do It

Avigdor Lieberman attacks Netanyahu for being controlled by the ultra-Orthodox. He’s right - and he's a sickening hypocrite himself. Meet Israel's fake secular justice warrior, and his anti-Haredi hate campaign

Israel's former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman stands at the plenum at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem. May 30, 2019
\ RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

What a difference six months makes.

Back in November, Avigdor Lieberman was the closest ally of the ultra-Orthodox politicians and rabbis, successfully fielding their joint candidate for Jerusalem mayor. This week he forced Benjamin Netanyahu in to the unprecedented move of dissolving a newly-elected Knesset, all because he wouldn’t "be a partner to a Jewish religious law government." 

Where was Lieberman the great defender of secular Israelis from religious coercion back in November when together with his old ally, Shas Leader Arye Deri, he foisted on Jerusalemites Mayor Moshe Leon, their accountant from Givatayim, who did not win even one seat on the city council?

Lieberman is now attacking Netanyahu for being controlled by the Haredim. He’s right, Netanyahu will do anything to guarantee his alliance with the ultra-Orthodox parties, or as he calls them, Likud’s "natural partners."

>> Israel's False Messiah of Religious Freedom Just Brought Down Netanyahu. It's Hilarious

But it’s a bit rich coming from someone who only half a year ago was making the rounds, persuading the rabbis to order their followers to vote for his man. He didn’t seem to mind their political power back then.

The hypocrisy of Lieberman’s reincarnation as secular justice warrior doesn’t just stop there. The "matter of principle" with which he chose to blow up the coalition talks, the yeshiva students draft law, is another prime example.

Up until last November, when he decided to resign as defense minister, in protest over the Gaza ceasefire, he didn’t show much enthusiasm for the law. It was an issue that had to be solved by the ministry, so the government could comply with the High Court ruling against the previous law. Only after he resigned, and especially since the election, did he become the law’s cheerleader. Now he’s pretending to be a great believer in sharing the burden of conscription "equally."

Let’s put aside the fact that "equal burden" is one of the greatest myths of Israeli politics. There is no such thing as shared burden in military service.

One soldier serves in a combat unit in arduous, potentially life-threatening conditions and when discharged, has no employable skills, besides perhaps as experience as part-time security guard at university. And another soldier serves in a base close to home, let's say in the military intelligence SIGINT Unit 8200, and leaves the military with the knowledge and connections to launch a cyber startup. The fact that both of them served for three years in no way makes their burden equal.

Lieberman knows, having been defense minister, that the IDF is not interested in drafting tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox men, totally unaccustomed to life outside their closed communities.

Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman visiting at an army drill in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israel, August 7, 2018
\ Amir Cohen/ REUTERS

He is also fully aware that the draft law on which he broke the coalition is not about creating any equality between 18 year-olds. The quotas of yeshiva draftees stipulated in the law (to which a small number of hardline rabbis objected, forcing the other rabbis to fall in line) are basically the numbers of young Haredim who have joined the army in recent years anyway.

This isn’t the first time Lieberman has tried to take up the secularist mantle. A couple of election campaigns back, one of his key pledges was to fight for civil partnerships, allowing immigrants from the former Soviet Union, not recognized by the rabbinate as Jews, to marry in Israel. He also promised to streamline the conversion process.

But none of that happened when he actually joined the government. His usual tactic was to pick a fight with the Haredim during the election campaign, over Shas’ dominance of the interior ministry and treatment of Russian immigrants, or over the right to buy pork on Shabbat. And then team up with his friends Deri and Yaakov Litzman once the election was over.

Lieberman is the most inscrutable of Israeli politicians, and there are as many conspiracy theories for the "real" reason he shafted Netanyahu as there are pundits. But just based on the raw political data, it would seem that he is trying to stake out new electoral ground in what he believes is the twilight of Netanyahu’s career.

Both on the right and the center-ground of Israeli society, there are hundreds of thousands of voters who are either secular and traditional, who are fine with Netanyahu’s policies, but very uncomfortable with his ironclad alliance with the Haredi parties. Lieberman seems to think he can drive a wedge between them and Likud. He may be right.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews attend a protest against a law calling for members of their community to serve in the army, in Jerusalem's Mea Shearim neighbourhood. December 22, 2015
\ Baz Ratner/ REUTERS

There is a frustrated section of the secular middle class which isn’t particularly ideological, but are afraid that the Haredim are about to steal their country. In the past they voted in droves for Tommy Lapid’s Shinuy and Lapid Junior’s Yesh Atid. This could be Yisrael Beitenu’s future.

But taking advantage of anti-Haredi feelings for electoral gain shouldn’t be mistaken for a more liberal or enlightened take on the role of religion in public life.

For Lieberman’s vision on this, you need look no further than Yisrael Beitenu’s platform in the last election which states quite clearly that the party "unequivocally opposes separating religion from the state. In a state where the religion and the nation are two parts of the same whole, you cannot separate religion from the state." In other words, Lieberman believes in Jewish nationalism, he just wants the rabbis to know their place.

Beyond a load of meaningless slogans about "Zeev Jabotinsky’s concept of Judaism," not something the average voter knows much about, the platform includes a few policies. Drafting everyone, making some changes to the conversion and marriage systems, and allowing public transport and shopping on Shabbat in neighborhoods where there’s a demand for this.

Israeli deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman speaks to members of the media before he enters the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. May 26, 2019
\ POOL/ REUTERS

All reasonable policies, but not a different vision of Judaism. There’s nothing about releasing women from the subjugation of the rabbinical courts. Nothing about support for non-Orthodox streams or pluralistic Jewish education. Lieberman has nothing against the Haredi rabbis monopolizing Israel’s state religion, as long as it serves the state according to his narrow nationalist perspective.

The temptation to cheer for Lieberman challenging both Netanyahu and the Haredi leadership is perhaps understandable. Replacing the prime minister is crucial for Israeli democracy and Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox support is one of the main sources of his enduring power.

But it would be just as wrong to join in Lieberman’s anti-Haredi hate campaign as it was to join his anti-Arab racist ones in previous elections. The members of the Haredi community are the ones suffering from their leaders’ decisions, much more than inconvenienced secular Israelis.

For 30 years, Lieberman upheld the unholy axis between secular and Haredi politicians that ensure the Haredi community would remain secluded from the rest of society, its children denied of modern education, all so they would continue obeying nonagenarian rabbis and voting for the right parties, which would then join the right coalition.

For his own purpose, he is now turning on that axis, and if that helps bring down Netanyahu and diminish Haredi political power, then great. But anti-Haredi hatred is not the way to building a fairer Israeli society or better Jewish communities - and for those purposes, Lieberman is certainly no partner.