For weeks, the assumption of most Israelis, including experienced politicians and commentators, has been that Avigdor Liberman’s refusal to join Netanyahu’s coalition was posturing. He only had five seats, after all, so he was using his kingmaker status to cut a better deal. “He will wait till the last minute,” people said, “and then he will make an agreement.” Savvy, or at least, it would have been, if that is what Liberman was doing. It wasn’t.
Yesterday was the last minute, and Liberman did not change his terms, and Netanyahu lost his shot at making a government. It turns out that Liberman was serious about not joining, but why? Already this morning, Prime Minister Netanyahu offered one explanation: Liberman is a lefty. This approach to opposition has become the prime minister’s favorite swipe.
In 2015, it worked well against the Zionist Union chief, Isaac Herzog, leading Bibi’s Likud party to a large victory, 30 to 24. He used it again against Benny Gantz, the head of the Blue and White party. Referring to a man who once headed the Israeli Army—and was appointed by Bibi no less — as “weak left” is patently absurd, especially since two of his main running mates, Moshe (Bogi) Yaalon and Gaby Ashkenazi, were also former army chiefs of staff. Yet, although less successful than his attack on Herzog, since Likud and Blue and White ended up with 35 seats a piece, the ploy still worked, as Bibi had more votes in total, and the balance of the Knesset was on his side.
Now that Bibi finds himself in elections once again, because he could not get Liberman to agree to join the government he put together, he is trying the leftist claim one more time. I am not sure it is possible to make a less compelling argument than calling Gantz and Bogi weak leftists, but if such a thing is possible, then it would be sticking Liberman with that label. If anything, Liberman has long thought Netanyahu was soft on Gaza, which is why he quit as defense minister in 2018, leading to the previous coalition crisis.
If we put aside Bibi’s rhetorical swipe of “lefty,” why did Liberman refuse to join the government? Some believe it was a personal vendetta against Netanyahu. Others have argued that Liberman felt new elections would put his party in a stronger position, if he was seen as the man who stood up to Bibi.
I don’t really know the answer as to why he did it, but I would like to focus on the reason he claims he did it. Time and again, Liberman said that he would only join if the Haredi draft law was passed without amendment. For those unfamiliar with this law, here is the background:
For years, the army has had an exemption for people who declare “Torah is my vocation” and learn full time in yeshivot. As the Religious Zionist yeshivot have army programs, this leaves the Haredi community as the group using this exemption. The law was modified a number of times in history, but in 2012, the Supreme Court struck the exemption down.
To solve the crisis, in 2013, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, which was part of the government at the time, pushed through legislation that allowed a much more limited exemption, and essentially phased in Haredi army service. When the Knesset was dissolved in 2015, and reconstituted without Yesh Atid but with the Haredi parties, this law was modified to allow much less restricted exemptions, essentially returning the situation to the status quo ante.
The Supreme Court, however, overruled this modified law, and is forcing the Knesset to pass a more appropriate one along the lines of the Yesh Atid law from 2013.The Haredi parties want to modify the law before passing it to, again, remove its teeth so that it doesn’t have real impact on their community. Liberman, however, wants the law restored as it was, no modifications and no provisions.
Whether or not this is “really” the reason Liberman wouldn’t join the government, it points to an important point we often miss when studying the political landscape. We often think in terms of the right and left wing divide. To oversimplify: If someone is for harsher reactions to Gaza, against a Palestinian state, and pro the nation-state law, they are right wing. The reverse positions, negotiations with Hamas, the founding of a Palestinian state, and repealing or adjusting the nation-state law reflect the left wing.
At the same time, we say that someone who supports Shabbat laws, religious marriage laws, and exemption from army service for yeshiva students is right wing. Whereas someone who wishes for shops and buses to be open on Shabbat, for secular marriage as an option, and equality of army service for all Israelis, is left wing.
Yet, the above two sets of examples actually run along different axes. The first has to do with nationalism, whether one thinks Israel is best served by hawkishness or dovishness, and whether one believes the Palestinians are being mistreated. The second has to do with religion, whether Orthodox Judaism should have power over all Israelis’ lives, at least to some extent, or whether it is wrong for the government to be influenced by religious considerations when they turn out to be unfairly coercive against one group while supportive of another.
One reason we tend to elide these two axes (nationalist and religious) is because many people are right or left wing on both. Meretz, for example, is a secular party which is dovish when it comes to Palestinians and which pushes against religious coercion. The United Right, in contrast, is a religious party which is also hawkish about the Palestine question. And while the United Right does not represent the population looking for army exemptions, its members are willing to allow these exemptions since the parties that do want these exemptions, Shas and UTJ, have long agreed to support the side of the hawks.
This is where Liberman and his Yisrael Beytenu party is significant. Here we have someone who, on the nationalist front, is a hawk’s hawk, but on the religious front, doesn’t just happen to be secular, but is ideologically aligned with a group who wishes to avoid religious coercion and maintain Israel as a secular Jewish state.
Liberman’s objection to Yisrael Beytenu joining the government reminds us that when we vote in the next elections, we need to keep the two issues of nationalism and religion separate. We need to ask how we want the government to approach the Palestinian question as well as to ask how we want the government to approach the issue of church and state.
Luckily or unluckily, thanks to Liberman, we must ask ourselves these questions five years earlier than we previously thought.