A former editor of the Jerusalem Post today confessed his puzzlement on what Avigdor Lieberman is doing. As some of my readers know, Lieberman prevented Benjamin Netanyahu from forming a government. For this, the Prime Minister vilified him as empowering the left and derided him for not supporting him to form a right wing government. Was he just playing politics? Was it a lust for power? We cannot know the motives and, contrary to the press and the politicians who oppose him, we will not engage in slandering him for his motives. Contrary to the Jerusalem Post editorial, there is a possibility that Lieberman, the leader of Israel Betainu (Israel our Home), a Russian Jewish orientated party, is following real convictions. Were his motives as white and pure as newly fallen snow, it could be quite rational and principled for him to oppose the Prime Minister and to let his government fail to form. Besides the severe critique of Lieberman, the Prime Minister derides the Blue and White, the main opposition party as leftist. How can this be the case since the leaders are former military leaders, one of whom is Boggie Yaalon, the former defense minister under Netanyahu who was replaced so that Netanyahu could bring Lieberman’s party into the last government in part by offering him the post of defense minister.
Politics are really strange! Much of the criticism of Netanyahu by the Blue and White is that the Prime Minister has been too weak in fighting the terror of Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon. This hardly sounds leftist! Blue and White puts forth other policies that are not that different from Likkud. In fact, they are open to being in a government led by Netanyahu’s party, Likkud, if Netanyahu does not lead it. They have said they will not be in a government led by a leader who will probably be indicted for graft. The claim of their being left wing is that to form a government without Likud, they will have to include parties on the left. Again, how strange since Netanyahu recently offered to the Labor Party a place in the government! Is your head spinning yet?
Back to Lieberman. There is a real question as to whether even after the next election, Netanyahu can form a government without Lieberman. Lieberman’s primary issues have to do with the domination of the Ultra-Orthodox, and Netanyahu’s submission to their demands. This includes several very important issues, so important that we should give Lieberman a break on questioning his motives. Here is his list.
- The military or national service exemption for all men who claim to be studying Torah (translate this as Talmud and Rabbinic Law). Part of this issue is that large amounts of government funds (read: tax revenues) are directed towards supporting the Yeshivas (study houses) where such study takes place.
- The welfare funds that are given to the Orthodox who claim to be studying (that they really are capable of such study, set against the suspicion that studying is not honestly enforced). This is a terrible weight on the economy of Israel. All are paying for the lack of productivity/economic expansion, taxes, and diminished prosperity.
- The rejection of the Jewish status of many Russian Jews, by some accounts as many as 400,000. Because they are not considered adequately Jewish by Orthodox Jewish law, they cannot marry in Israel since there is no civil marriage in Israel. They do not want a Christian wedding where they identify as Christians, and they are not allowed to marry Jews. They thus have to fly overseas for marriage. However, to add insult to injury, the Ultra-Orthodox, over against the more flexible national Orthodox, are in charge of the conversion process. They have made the formal conversion (to Judaism) process difficult, though some tolerance and accommodation on their part would relieve the pressure on them.
Set against Lieberman’s list are the demands of the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox parties such as United Torah Judaism and Shas, which are strongly opposed by Lieberman’s party (and many in Israel):
- The government allows and fosters work on the Sabbath that they consider economically necessary, such as railway infrastructure construction that enables avoiding shutting parts of the rail network down on weekdays with the terrible problems that would cause. The Orthodox demand that this work not be allowed.
- Business on the Sabbath. The government allows restaurants, entertainment, sports, and convenient stores to operate in secular areas on the Sabbath. The Ultra-Orthodox want to stop this. In addition, they want to shut down public transportation in such areas over Shabbat.
- Segregated transportation. The Ultra-Orthodox are now pushing for gender segregated transportation – such as buses with separate seating areas in different parts of the bus for men and women. This has been declared discriminatory and illegal by the Supreme Court.
- Segregated public functions. The Orthodox are pushing for separation of men and women for public functions.
These are significant issues; a large enough list that perhaps makes questioning the motives of Lieberman unnecessary. When the next election comes, the key will be the votes that Lieberman and his party get and the number of votes that go to the rightist parties and the Ultra-Orthodox.