The Flip Side of Madness

Avigdor Lieberman at the Knesset on May 30, 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

Nobody really believes Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman when he claims that he led Israel to the greatest, certainly wackiest, political chaos in Israel’s history because of conscription legislation – that actually exempts the absolute majority of ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students from the draft. But depending on the reader’s point of view, it is possible for something good to come out of something bad.

Granted, a genuine, egalitarian conscription bill will not be passed. And if it is passed, it won’t be enforced – even if Kahol Lavan and the left form the next government. But Lieberman’s commitment to put a halt to the endless demands of the ultra-Orthodox parties, which will certainly be at the center of his election campaign, could increase his electoral strength in the next Knesset.

The left won’t emphasize the issue, in part due to the prospect that at some point it may form a coalition government with the ultra-Orthodox parties, as it did during the period of the Oslo Accords. Lieberman’s enhanced political strength might therefore curb the limitless appetite of the ultra-Orthodox to consume more and more of the national pie, although they don’t contribute anything to it.

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Even if there’s no change in Likud’s Knesset slate, Benjamin Netanyahu’s standing is not what it once was. Legislation tailored to grant him criminal immunity will die. (Netanyahu declared as much himself in his scandalous offer to Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay). And after he runs out of delaying tactics, Netanyahu will have to show up at a pre-indictment hearing and following that, almost certainly also stand trial. Lieberman also deserves credit for this development, even if he apparently didn’t mean to bring it about.

The leadership crisis that is now in its initial stages could lead a few of those eyeing to succeed to the crown to come out publicly against a prime minister who has turned the ruling party into his own personal flak jacket. Their distress, particularly in light of the personal immunity bill Netanyahu promoted, has been evident recently. Some of them have even hinted that they are on the verge of going public.

It is therefore reasonable to assume that after the September Knesset election one of them will actually step forward and challenge Netanyahu (which Gideon Saar didn’t really do). “Enough!” they will tell Netanyahu. In light of your recent failures – and despite your successes up to a certain period – your long tenure as leader of the ruling party that heads the national camp is over.

Apart from Lieberman, the national religious parties may also score gains, perhaps substantial ones, in the next election. That’s providing, of course, that they learn lessons from their mistakes in the last campaign. Because they were divided, the national religious camp suffered losses. (According to Prof. Asher Cohen, who specializes in the political sociology of the national religious community, they lost some 270,000 votes, the equivalent of about seven Knesset seats).

Granted, some of these votes shifted to Likud, but under Netanyahu’s leadership, Likud is no longer the ideological right. A national religious party in the style of the old Torah Va’avoda will almost certainly emerge alongside the Union of Right-Wing Parties, the political home of the national religious ultra-Orthodox camp, some of whose mentality is not far from ultra-Orthodoxy. The new movement will most likely learn a lesson from Hayamin Hehadash’s failure in the April election.

In light of the moral – and political – crisis in Likud, such a new party has the prospect of getting support from national religious voters who drifted to Likud in the election two months ago. To achieve that, it will have to prove, and there’s no problem doing so, that Likud has ceased to be a party whose main mission is the Land of Israel for the Jewish people. Today it’s a one-man party whose main energies are directed at saving Netanyahu’s skin and job.