Israel Heads to New Elections

No one believed that it was going to happen, but it happened. Last Wednesday was one of the tensest, most dramatic, and possibly even most historic days ever experienced in the Knesset. The Twenty-First Knesset didn’t even make it to the age of one month before it gasped its final breaths. Nothing like this has ever happened in the history of the State of Israel – and no one understands why it happened now.

I was present in the Knesset last Wednesday. It was clear that Prime Minister Netanyahu was in a tenuous situation, as I reported to you last week. President Rivlin had given him 21 days to assemble a government, and Netanyahu had failed. He asked the president for the two-week extension to which he was legally entitled, and he received it. The two weeks came to an end at midnight on Wednesday. It seemed that there was no question that Netanyahu would put together a government during those two weeks, but he did not succeed.

The question is: Why not? On paper, it seemed that he had 65 sworn supporters. There was the Likud party, Shas, United Torah Judaism, Kulanu (Moshe Kachlon’s party), the United Right (Smotrich and Peres), and Yisroel Beiteinu (Lieberman). Together, that adds up to exactly 65 mandates. All of those parties had explicitly pledged before the election that they would support Netanyahu, and only Netanyahu, for prime minister. And they proceeded to carry out their promises. So what happened?

There are differing opinions on that subject, but the truth is very simple: Avigdor Lieberman is at fault. He made a series of impossible demands, pushing Netanyahu to the edge, and then, when the situation spun out of control, Netanyahu didn’t even have time to recover. The bill to dissolve the Knesset, which seemed to have been introduced only for purposes of intimidating Lieberman into submission, was brought to a vote and was approved by a large majority. With that, the Twenty-First Knesset dissolved, and we are now headed into the elections for the Twenty-Second Knesset. It is unbelievable.

The elections will be held on the 17th of Elul. That is not the date that the chareidi parties desired. They would have preferred for the election to take place during the summer bein hazemanim. Nevertheless, the committee that prepared the law had to come up with a date on which everyone would agree, and the entire opposition, including Lieberman, was opposed to the summer date. Their reason? “Because it’s good for the chareidim!” they explained unabashedly.

Lieberman Shows His True Colors

I was present when the vote was held over the bill to dissolve the Knesset. For particularly dramatic votes, or when there is a request made by 20 members of the Knesset, a roll call is conducted. Each MK is called by name and votes aloud. Some of the Knesset members voted in favor of the bill even though they would certainly have preferred to oppose it, since it is very unclear if they will be part of the next Knesset.

I glanced at Avigdor Lieberman. He looked like a grieving man, as if he had just lost a loved one. Lieberman himself cannot be certain that he will be included in the next Knesset. Even now, his party received only five mandates, which means that he barely managed to cross the electoral threshold. Bennett’s party, which received enough votes for only four mandates, was excluded from the Knesset, and Lieberman wasn’t too far ahead of him. Everyone is asking the same question: What does Lieberman want? Why did he make this insane move?

From a political standpoint, Lieberman is taking a massive gamble. There is a significant chance that he and his party will be wiped off the political map in the next elections. The Israeli voters have always punished anyone who dragged the country into an election. That is how it has always been, it is eminently logical, and it will likely continue that way. But there is another side of the coin: Lieberman is creating a solid anti-religious position for himself. He has relentlessly insulted, attacked, and incited against the chareidi community and all that is holy to it. This is not the first time he has taken such a stance. We all remember how he traveled to Ashdod to eat in treife restaurants before the previous elections. He is undoubtedly hoping to build himself up with anti-religious votes. But still, is that a reason to drag an entire country into an unnecessary election?

The Steipler’s Explanation

In retrospect, people are horrified at the thought that Avigdor Lieberman served as the Minister of Defense. Even now, Lieberman demanded the defense portfolio, along with two other ministerial posts and a committee chairmanship. And he received what he demanded, as well as funding for the Russian community. The reason he created this crisis was not that he didn’t get what he wanted. Then what was it?

I will tell you what Netanyahu says, but first of all, here is a thought. I am not about to rate any person’s intelligence or level of sanity. I will simply share with you a vort that I heard when I was much younger. The Gemara says that there are three things that indicate that a person is a shoteh (mentally deficient): if he goes out alone at night, if he sleeps in a graveyard, and if he tears his clothing. According to one opinion, if a person meets two of these criteria, that is not enough for him to be deemed a shoteh. All three must be true in order for him to have that status.

The Steipler Gaon once pointed out that if a person manifests only one of these signs, then the reason we do not consider him a shoteh is that we can find a reasonable explanation for his behavior. Even if he shows two of the signs, there are still rationales to which we can attribute his actions. Why, then, don’t we invoke the same explanations even if a person shows all three signs? If there are rational explanations for each of these behaviors individually, why do we consider a person to be a shoteh when he shows all three signs?

The Steipler answered: When there is a single explanation for three bizarre behaviors, even if there could be a different, separate explanation for each of them, the single answer is probably the correct one.

But I haven’t said anything about Lieberman….

Netanyahu’s Fury

I watched Netanyahu as he left the Knesset at midnight, after the members of the Knesset voted to dissolve the parliament. This was ostensibly a victory for Netanyahu, but it is hardly a victory to be envied. Netanyahu went downstairs to his office in the Knesset building and I followed him. Dozens of reporters had spent the day waiting in a cordoned-off area outside his office. Netanyahu spoke to them for a few minutes, entered his office, and immediately left it. Evidently, he had gone there only for the purpose of talking to the press.

His face radiated hurt and rage. He didn’t answer any questions. He merely made a lengthy statement to the reporters, consisting entirely of criticism of Lieberman, who has become his greatest enemy. “The public elected me,” Netanyahu said, “but Lieberman deceived the voters. He is now part of the left. He never planned to enter the coalition at all; he tricked all of us… From the outset, he never had the slightest intention of keeping his word. He made one demand after another, and every time that his demands were met, he added new ones.”

The enraged prime minister continued with his offensive. “Sixty out of the 65 mandates that were given to the right did exactly what they promised to do, but one party has done the exact opposite. Lieberman wanted to topple this government. He did this in order to collect a few extra votes. That is what he thinks he will accomplish, but he won’t succeed. He is dragging an entire country into another half a year of elections. He dragged the country into elections twice for his own personal whims, in an attempt to receive a few more mandates. It is simply unbelievable.”

Netanyahu emphasized his contention that Lieberman is part of the left. I imagine that this will be his mantra during the upcoming election campaign, even though the idea might actually attract left-wing voters to Lieberman’s party.

If that wasn’t enough, Netanyahu went to the Orient Hotel in Yerushalayim on Thursday night solely for the purpose of attacking Lieberman, and he did a very good job of it. He derided Lieberman mainly for the anti-religious image that he has suddenly created for himself. “For twenty years, he was a faithful partner to the chareidim,” Netanyahu said. “All of a sudden, he has now become concerned about the draft for the chareidim.” The prime minister insisted again that Lieberman’s intention was solely to amass additional mandates for his own party, and that he has toppled a right-wing government for the sake of political gain.

Lieberman himself was unfazed by Netanyahu’s criticism. For his part, he accused the Likud of “surrendering” to the chareidi parties. “The State of Israel is going to elections because of the Likud’s refusal to vote for the original draft law that we proposed,” he said. “The compromise proposals were their way of stalling for time.”

He is correct that a compromise was proposed, although it would have accomplished nothing other than to postpone this contentious issue until a later time. But nothing could change Lieberman’s mind.

The Goal: A Majority Without Lieberman

What is going to happen now? Well, we all have to hope that the coming elections will spare us from Lieberman. For Netanyahu – and for everyone else – the exact division of mandates between the parties isn’t going to be all that important. What matters most is that all the parties that support Netanyahu, including the Likud, will receive over 60 mandates together. And, Netanyahu emphasizes, Lieberman must be excluded. If the Likud, the chareidi parties, and the national religious sector receive over 60 mandates together, there will be a right-wing government without Avigdor Lieberman.

Keeping Lieberman out of the government will be a tremendous gain. There is a reasonable chance that Yisroel Beiteinu will not pass the electoral threshold at all. Right-wing voters will be afraid to vote for him, since he has now prevented the formation of a right-wing government. If voters on the left cast their ballots for him, meanwhile, it will come at the expense of Yair Lapid and the Blue and White party, which would also be a good thing. If Lieberman does pass the electoral threshold and a coalition is formed without him, that would be an optimal situation. Moreover, until last Wednesday night, amidst the frenzy of efforts to draw Lieberman into the government, there were some who feared the instability he would cause. Even if a coalition were formed, he would have been in a position to threaten Netanyahu and wrangle concessions out of him at any moment. The government’s continued existence would have been dependent on the goodwill of Lieberman, who is completely unpredictable, if not outright unstable.

Incidentally, last week the Kulanu party merged with the Likud, which gives the Likud party a chance of securing over 40 mandates in the next election. Meanwhile, it is unclear if Naftali Bennett will run on a separate list again. But the bottom line, as I said, is that the right-wing bloc must exceed 60 mandates without having to rely on Lieberman. There is no question that UTJ and Shas are hoping to repeat their successful showing in the upcoming election, after each party won eight mandates in the previous round. But even if that doesn’t happen, as long as the 60-mandate mark is passed, it will be better than having a government that is subservient to Lieberman’s whims.

Gafni on Lieberman: “He is a Dictator”

Moshe Gafni spoke at a press conference organized by United Torah Judaism, where he attacked Lieberman fiercely.

“The upcoming election will be a referendum on Israel’s status as a Jewish and democratic state,” he asserted. “With his dictatorial behavior, Lieberman has inflicted harm on our democracy, on the Knesset and its committees. He acted like a dictator from the days of the Iron Curtain… We never spoke about a halachic state,” he added, responding to one of Lieberman’s charges. He also accused the Yisroel Beiteinu chairman of working duplicitously to undermine the prime minister. “His entire goal was for Netanyahu not to be the prime minister,” Gafni charged. “Lieberman will not be a subject of discussion for us in the election campaign. We have been thrown into a wasteful election. The State of Israel needs these funds for very many humanitarian causes, for families in distress, and for sick children, but all that money is being thrown away solely because of one man with a political agenda… All of the citizens of the State of Israel are suffering for this, and they will punish him at the polls. He will not pass the electoral threshold,” Gafni predicted confidently.

Aryeh Deri also spoke about Lieberman at several junctures, and since he has been known to have close ties with Lieberman, the public was eager to hear what he had to say. On Thursday, Deri called a press conference at the offices of the Shas party and spoke out against his onetime political ally. “Netanyahu shared his concerns with me after the election,” Deri related. “He was very troubled, and he told me that he wasn’t going to be able to form a government, because Lieberman was determined to prevent it. I thought that he was fantasizing; I told him that he was wrong.” Nevertheless, Deri admitted now, Netanyahu was correct. “I never realized that we had such an ardent ideological foe,” he added. “Today, I feel offended and pained. One man has decided to drag the entire country into an election because of his hatred, and that pains me.” Deri also mention an article that Lieberman had written for Yediot Acharonot last Friday in which he attacked the chareidim. “If we simply replaced the word ‘chareidim’ in that article with ‘Jews,’ it would look exactly like something that was printed in a certain country in Europe several decades ago.” His 30-year friendship with Lieberman, Deri concluded, had come to an end.