The Israeli elections last Tuesday (September 17, 2019) have resulted in a tie between two seemingly equal blocs. On the one hand, the right-wing – ultra-Orthodox coalition, which has ruled the country in recent years, with the big party being the Likud party headed by Benjamin Netanyahu. On the other hand – the center-left-Arab coalition in which the big party is the ‘Blue-and-White’ party led by Benny Gantz.
Tie Between Netanyahu & Gantz
This tie seems unsolvable. The unlikely union of Gantz, the former chief of staff of the IDF, in whose party the right-wing elements are significant, with left-wing parties and Arab parties, which apparently have very little in common, is for one purpose only – to remove Benjamin Netanyahu from power.
Netanyahu is seen as a radical right-winger, corrupt, and a man who will do anything to avoid trial on a series of criminal charges of serious corruption against him. On the other hand, Netanyahu is barricaded in his position, receiving the backing and personal support of all the members in the coalition he has established, who view these allegations as political persecution by leftist Deep State officials, who want to remove the prominent right-wing man Netanyahu from power.
The Israeli parliament, the Knesset, has 120 members. At present, Netanyahu’s right bloc has 55 Knesset members, and the Gantz center bloc 57. Between the two blocs stands Avigdor Lieberman’s party “Our Home Israel” with eight Knesset members, and with the power to decide between the two blocs.
Who is Avigdor Lieberman and what is his party?
Lieberman was previously one of Netanyahu’s senior executivesץ. He served as a minister in several Netanyahu governments, and most often represented extreme right-wing opinions.
He is well-known for radical statements such as the statement that the Aswan Dam in Egypt should be bombed (just to remind the reader – Egypt has a peace treaty with Israel since 1979) or that if appointed to the post of defense minister he will ‘eliminate’ Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh within 48 hours (Lieberman has served as defense minister for several years, And Haniyeh is still alive and well, though he has been replaced by Ihya Sinwar as Hamas leader in Gaza) In Lieberman’s past there were criminal proceedings for corruption, of which he was acquitted.
A corruption affair in his party that came under indictment a few years ago has left many of its senior executives behind bars. And yet, as of today, he is the strongest man in the state, the maker of kings, who has the power to decide who the prime minister will be. It was his refusal to join Netanyahu after the April election, which led to the second round of elections in September.
Who does Lieberman stand for?
Lieberman represents the immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, in the 1990s, about a million Russians immigrated to Israel, according to the Law of Return, which gives automatic citizenship of the state to any person having at least one Jewish grandparent.
This population retains cultural uniqueness, even after close to thirty years of living in Israel with their children. Israel has Russian TV channels, Russian newspapers, and Russian cultural and community life. Government documents are translated into Russian, and the language is heard on the streets of Israeli cities almost like Hebrew and Arabic. Lieberman’s party bearing the name “Our Home Israel” appeals to this audience, and from it comes its voter base.
It is impossible to make generalizations, certainly not considering a population as wide and diverse as the immigrants from Russia to Israel.
But the image of the Russian immigrant to Israel is as a right-wing and secular person. In a large number of election campaigns, since the 1990s, the “Russian voice” has usually gone to the right-wing parties.
The “secular” sentiment is also distinct. Culturally, the various prohibitions on Jewish worship in the Soviet Union left many people far from religion, and when they arrived in Israel, they wanted to pursue their familiar lifestyle, which does not include keeping religious prohibitions such as food-related prohibitions – like not eating meat and dairy products together.
Israeli Marriage Law
Worst of all is the effect of the special marriage law structure in Israel on this population. In Israel, one can only marry in a religious ceremony, and only to a pursuer of the same religion. A Muslim can only marry a Muslim, a Christian can only marry Christian and a Jew can only marry a Jew. If one has ‘no religion’ one simply cannot get married.
Many of the Russian population are not Jewish according to Jewish law, according to which a Jew is one whose mother is Jewish. The Law of Return allows for Israeli citizenship for everyone with a Jewish grandparent regardless of Jewish law categories. So, if someone has a Jewish father but a Christian mother, he will be granted citizenship but not recognized as a Jew and will no be able to marry anyone, Jewish or non-Jewish.
The solutions to this problem are varied, as this is a very draconian law. Israel recognizes a variety of non-marriage joint-life forms, and it is possible to register marriages performed abroad. But the refusal to recognize those immigrants, many of them with deep Jewish national sentiments as fully Jewish, conducting degrading pedigree tests, and the basic fact that one is declared unfit to marry, cause intense frustration and resentment for many. It is estimated that about 300,000 of the million immigrants are not Jewish according to Halacha – Jewish law.
In recent years, when Israel was ruled by a right-wing, religious coalition (which Lieberman was a major part of), religious coercion in Israel was greatly aggravated. There is no public transportation on Saturday (the day of rest for Jews when Halacha forbids to travel by car or work), there are laws that prevent the operation of shops and supermarkets on Saturday, and many other laws aimed at coercing the religious lifestyle over a population that does not want it.
Military Service is Mandatory for Every Israeli Citizen
The recruitment issue is a painful one. In Israel, known for its many wars, every person is obliged to enlist in the army for several years upon reaching the age of 18. But the ultra-Orthodox are granted a special exemption.
Jewish Nation’s Foundation Based on Torah
An ultra-Orthodox student in the yeshiva (religious academy) does not have to be recruited, as long as he is studying the Torah (Jewish holy scriptures) in the yeshiva. The basis of this exemption is the argument that the study of Torah is the foundation of the Jewish nation’s existence and that it is valued as equal to the service of the army.
This argument is not accepted by many, who see how their talented children, who can study for graduate degrees, start business, and advance in life, are recruited for years of difficult and dangerous military service, while the ultra-Orthodox sit and study the Torah, enjoying even a government allowance that allows them to live and study without work or to carry on military service.
Israeli Russians in the Army
The Russian population serves in the army, and over the years has had many casualties in the wars and struggles of the State of Israel. As a basically secular population, it is difficult for them to accept the arguments that the ultra-Orthodox should not serve in the army and must study Torah.
Lieberman is known in Israel as a fickle figure, whose motives cannot be known and his behavior cannot be predicted.
In June, a government was set up with Lieberman, Netanyahu, and the religious parties. At the last minute, Lieberman announced that he was demanding many demands that the ultra-Orthodox could not meet, most notably stringent requirements regarding the recruitment of the ultra-Orthodox youth into the army.
These demands led to the dissolution of the coalition, and to new elections less than six months after the April elections.
Lieberman’s Secular Unity Government
Some say that Lieberman’s real goal is to remove Netanyahu from power, due to a complex and murky relationship that has lasted for many years. However, in his public speeches, he talks about another goal – the establishment of a “secular unity government” uniting Gantz and Netanyahu without representation to the religious parties, enabling public transportation on Saturday, operating shops and supermarkets on Saturday, and mandatory recruitment for all.
At this point, such a government seems very difficult to put together, due to Netanyahu’s personal disqualification by all members of the Blue and White coalition who rose up against him. However, the threat that if any of them will not cooperate with this plan, Lieberman will form a narrow government with the other major party, may force the formation of such a government, uniting the two mortal enemies – Netanyahu and Gantz.
Thus, thirty years after the mass immigration from the Soviet Union, the fate of the state of Israel is in the hands of these immigrants, their children and their grandchildren, who chose to be represented by Avigdor Lieberman, the kingmaker of Israeli politics.