Political turmoil reigns supreme – in the hoopla of the April 9th election, Bibi Netanyahu was confident he was on his way to a record fifth term as Israel’s Prime Minister. Even faced with three possible indictments for fraud he came out of the election, apparently, with a 65-seat overall majority in the 120-member Knesset; this was based on his own Likud party teaming up with other rightwing and religious parties in the 120-member Knesset. It seemed only a matter of hammering out individual agreements with his potential partners. No sweat – Bibi’s a master negotiator.
However, Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the Russian immigrants’ party, had different ideas. Lieberman and Bibi go back a long way, sometimes in a tumultuous political relationship. Lieberman is far more outspoken than Bibi. He once warned Egypt never to attack Israel again or else the IDF would demolish the huge Aswan dam and total flood all of Egypt, including Cairo. More recently in January, Lieberman, then-Defense Minister, resigned in protest after Netanyahu refused to approve harsher Israeli retaliation for the firebombing of Israeli communities along the border with Gaza.
Netanyahu was certain that Lieberman’s party was in the bag.
In any case, Netanyahu was certain that Lieberman’s party was in the bag. So much so that the Prime Minister first cracked his tougher coalition partners, the hardline settler party and the two ultra-orthodox religious parties. Having achieved this, Bib then turned to Lieberman, and everyone expected it would be as easy as pie. However, Avigdor had other ideas. He raised the sticky issue of the officially approved draft dodging by ultra-orthodox men, Bear in mind that Bibi had already given the green light to the ultra-orthodox parties on their continued exemptions.
To the Prime Minister’s dismay, Lieberman demanded to put an end to it (notably, Russian immigrants and their sons do serve admirably in the IDF, many in combat units). In any case, Netanyahu was flabbergasted. He leaned on the ultra-orthodox party to make some cosmetic changes, but they remained adamant that ultra-orthodox young men should be allowed to study in yeshivas instead of serving in the IDF. In any case, Lieberman refused to budge, and the ultra-orthodox parties also maintained that Jewish men who want to study Torah seriously should be allowed to do so.
Most of the pundits surmised that Lieberman was only posturing, but they turned out to be wrong.
Most of the pundits surmised that Lieberman was only posturing, but they turned out to be wrong. Lieberman stood firm, and Bibi could only muster 60 Knesset members, just one less than the required majority to form a new government. And so, a new parliament that had just been sworn in was disbanded, and a new election date has been set for September 17th.
As a result, Netanyahu’s Likud party and Lieberman’s supporters, both of the rightwing, are going after each other’s political throats. A fierce “brain game” is being waged in what Bibi and the Likud foresee as an unforgivable act of political treachery by Lieberman. On the other hand, Lieberman accused the rest of the rightwing of selling out to the ultra-orthodox.
It’s still early days, but the ultra-orthodox are very worried that Lieberman may have unleashed a wave of popular rage against the special privileges, such a draft-dodging. In response, Bibi and his rightwing cohorts condemned Lieberman as traitors to the rightwing cause, and nothing less than “Leftist” – this is the ultimate epithet in their political jargon.
Where is all this going?
Lieberman has gained popularity by his tactic of taking on the ultra-orthodox draft-dodging…
Bibi’s main rivals from the center Blue & White party are watching with amazement, like the rest of the country, as Bibi and Lieberman batter one another. And, consider this – a poll taken the day after the pandemonium in the Knesset by Channel 11 indicates that the big winner so far is Avigdor Lieberman’s party that went up from five to eight Knesset seats if the new election were held today. The Likud block dropped to 58. The Blue & White party could count on a coalition of 54 seats. Of course, it’s early days, but apparently, Lieberman has gained popularity by his tactic of taking on the ultra-orthodox draft-dodging, and he would still be able to block Netanyahu from achieving the magic number of 61 for a new coalition to form a new government. But obviously, there’s a long way to go before Israeli voters again cast their ballot on September 17th.