Analysis

Not the Palestinians, the Economy or Even Netanyahu: Election Will Test Israel's Jewish Character

Far-right leader has unleashed a firestorm with his comments on Jewish theocracy, making September 17 much more than another referendum on Netanyahu's leadership

Bezalel Smotrich and Moti Yogev at the Knesset.
Olivier Fitoussi

The character of the strange upcoming election on September 17 is getting clearer, and, it turns out, it isn’t really strange at all.

The election – as Avigdor Lieberman announced with his amazing and cruel move that forced the election for personal motives – will be about religion and state. Or more precisely, whether Israel will be a state governed by Jewish religious law, as Knesset member Bezalel Smotrich of the Union of Right-Wing Parties would like, or a Western, democratic and liberal country, as Kahol Lavan chairman Benny Gantz wants (as do Tzachi Hanegbi and Amir Ohana of Likud). 

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 29Haaretz

With his sharp political instincts, Lieberman, the leader of Yisrael Beiteinu, understood that incitement against leftists and Arabs has run its course. It was like a miser’s used lemon. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has squeezed all the juice out of it, and there is nothing left. When Netanyahu called Lieberman a leftist, it turned into a wild parody. And Lieberman, in his political wisdom, has found an old-new target that’s somewhat fresher – the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox.

The dream-like years of the outgoing government and Netanyahu’s relative success in last April’s election are aggravating and frightening to many people – those who are indifferent to racism and who couldn’t care less about the High Court override bill; people for whom the Israeli-Palestinian conflict isn’t even worth thinking about; people who also don’t concern themselves with the cost of living after it piqued their interest for a quarter of a second. 

These people are simply afraid of the ultra-Orthodox and the Smotriches and of the lifestyle they believe the ultra-Orthodox and the Smotriches  would try to impose on them. That’s not an unjustified fear.

If Kahol Lavan wants to achieve something significant this time around, this will have to be the main thrust of its campaign: Frightening members of the public about the fate that awaits them in the clerical right-wing state being planned by the alliance of the ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox who tend towards ultra-Orthodoxy. Buses on which women are forced to sit in the back, school ceremonies where girls will not be permitted to sing, entertainment and leisure venues that are shuttered on the Sabbath, while all the liberal progress that has been made here is shoved deep into the closet.

Aside from the substance of the matter, the significance of such discourse would be dramatic. This election would not be just another referendum on Netanyahu’s leadership, a critical question that has preoccupied the political system for years. That question is still very important of course, but in this round, it has become just one of many. 

What does that mean, exactly? One must never write off Benjamin Netanyahu, the most talented, cruel and cunning player still on the playing field. But anyone with eyes in his head can see that the prime minister is nearing, a sorry and not slow end. The drive for an immunity law protecting him from prosecution was the last straw. Whether at the ballot box or in court, now that Lieberman has truncated the possible time frame for passing legislation that would help the prime minister evade justice, Netanyahu is more vulnerable. 

It’s no coincidence that fervent supporters have begun to come out against him. His family, which has been behind all of the latest moves, including the dismissal of Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked from the cabinet, has gotten on their nerves. Netanyahu has never really fought these supporters’ battles, against the left, the elites, the progressives or any other straw man that Netanyahu has invoked. 

The supporters were nothing more than pawns in a battle to maintain the empire. Yes, even conservatives and right-wingers want authentic representation. And they too are starting to sense the weakness.