When Avigdor Lieberman decided to scapegoat the chareidi public
n May 29, 1996, a 46-year-old Binyamin Netanyahu shocked Israel, and the world, when he defeated incumbent Shimon Peres to become Israel’s prime minister. Last Wednesday, exactly 23 years later, a now 69-year-old Netanyahu failed for the first time to form a government, leading Israel to a repeat election on September 17.
Elections in mid-September mean a government may be formed by early November — assuming Netanyahu can cobble together a coalition of 61 from the right-wing camp, this time excluding Yisrael Beitenu’s Avigdor Lieberman.
If so, that will happen a month after October 2, the date Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has set for a pre-indictment hearing on three separate cases against the prime minister. Mandelblit’s decision on those charges will reportedly come no later than December, and the conventional wisdom is that he will move to indict.
The repercussions will be dramatic. It’s difficult to see which of Netanyahu’s “natural allies” will agree to sign a coalition agreement with a prime minister facing a prolonged legal battle.
The man responsible for the political chaos is Avigdor Lieberman. Netanyahu, in a press conference shortly after his defeat, lashed out fiercely at his former defense minister, labeling him a “leftist,” the “national dismantler,” and listing his various plots and shenanigans during his years in the government. He also held up a graph showing the progressive fall in Lieberman’s support, from 15 mandates in 2009 to a third that number in the last election.
“Why is Lieberman doing this? Because he wants to save himself,” said Netanyahu, playing the pundit. “He won’t succeed!”
There remain 106 days until the election. At the moment, it appears this campaign won’t be the Likud against the Left, but the Likud against Lieberman, and vice versa. And the two sides know so much about each other that the campaign will be anything but boring.
What Happened to the Draft?
For his part, Lieberman insisted that he refused Netanyahu’s offer on the draft bill and quashed the coalition on principle alone. But a closer examination shows that Lieberman’s proposed law — the one he insisted must be implemented in its entirety — was very similar to the compromise that the chareidi parties had accepted. Still, differences remained.
One year ago, Lieberman, then the defense minister, formed a committee composed of senior members of the defense establishment to draw up a draft bill. That committee met with senior figures in the Torah and chareidi political worlds, after which they composed a new law, subject to revision by the political echelon, that conformed with the security establishment’s requirements for the chareidi draft.
For the chareidi parties, there were three main problems with the Lieberman committee recommendations. The first related to annual quotas and enlistment goals. The Lieberman version of the bill establishes certain quotas for enlistment, which will gradually increase in the years to come. Chareidi leaders objected to such precise numbers, a formula that would prevent them from modifying enlistment goals in the future based on changing circumstances.
Another problematic clause stated that if the chareidi public fails to meet the established enlistment goals, after about eight years, give or take, the law would automatically expire and every chareidi yeshivah bochur would be subject to the universal draft. The chareidi parties insisted, in rebuttal, that there was never a period in Israel’s history when a young chareidi man could not receive a deferral under the rubric of “Toraso umanuso.” The possibility that a situation might arise in which a yeshivah bochur would be banned from learning Torah — by law — prevented the leadership from compromising.
The third clause that drew censure, though admittedly less than the other two, is the declarative clause describing the essence of the bill. While the chareidi parties expected provision for deferral in cases of “Toraso umanuso,” the wording of the law spoke of the committee’s hope to fully integrate “chareidim” into IDF service. But the phrase “Toraso umanuso” has legal weight, as it was used to establish exemptions from army service in the past. The phrase also has symbolic weight as an identifier of the mission and character of the chareidi public. Although the clause was in no way binding, it too presented an almost insurmountable barrier.
Behind the Scenes
On Sunday last week, when it became clear to Netanyahu that Lieberman had no intention of backing down, the idea of a compromise on the draft law was first raised. The new offer was presented by former Shas minister Ariel Atias, who worked tirelessly for the bill behind the scenes in the last Knesset.
According to Atias’s compromise offer, which Netanyahu hurried to adopt, the subject of quotas would be circumvented by entrusting decisions about quotas to the government — and not enshrined in law. As to the question of the law’s expiry, it was proposed that in the event that the chareidim fall short of the goals, the government would undertake to come to a decision on the matter.
These solutions, it’s important to note, also arose in the deliberations of the Lieberman committee. The representatives of the defense establishment agreed to them, and even Lieberman was at one point inclined to consent. More than that, the members of the committee, the legal advisors and members of the security establishment, recognized the necessity of crafting a palatable law. These facts lend weight to the charge that Lieberman wasn’t actually concerned about the draft law, but used it as a pretext for purely political ends.
Lieberman knows the chareidi community well, and understands its deepest values and red lines. The chareidi Knesset members took it for granted that they would be allowed to insert necessary revisions before the final passage of any draft law. Last week, when Lieberman declared that he was only joining the coalition if his bill would not undergo a single revision, he knew the chareidi Knesset members would never agree.
On Wednesday evening, in a last effort to prevent repeat elections, Netanyahu suggested a compromise by which the law would be passed in a first reading in Lieberman’s version. The chareidi parties could then negotiate with the Yisrael Beitenu leader about revisions before the third and final vote, each side having a veto; if agreements were not reached, however, the universal draft would apply to all chareidim. In this offer, Lieberman clearly had the upper hand, but he still wouldn’t agree. The implication is clear: Lieberman had no intention of joining Netanyahu’s government.
“Lieberman aimed to humiliate the Torah world,” said UTJ’s Rabbi Moshe Gafni in an interview with Mishpacha. “He conducted himself like a ruffian with the aim of trampling on the Torah world. Does anyone have an idea what kind of kitrug would arise in Shamayim if we allowed the Torah to be publicly trampled on, by surrendering to the caprice of one individual?”
UTJ’s Deputy Minister Yaakov Litzman added that, had they surrendered to Lieberman, it would have been only the beginning. “If he were once allowed to beat us on the draft, he would never have left us alone,” Litzman said. “He would have held us hostage until he felt it was a convenient time for elections. In this situation, it’s better to just go to elections immediately and neutralize the threat once and for all.”
Shas’s Aryeh Deri recalled that Lieberman and the chareidi community had worked together for 25 years, but now that relationship is irrevocably broken. “He received entrance to the chassidic, litvish, and Sephardic communities,” said Deri. “He’s surrounded by chareidim from every sector. We worked together with him in dozens of areas and in the end, he betrayed us in the most shameful manner.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 763)