By: Avrohom Broyde and Yaakov Kornreich
In a dramatic turnabout, Prime Minister Netanyahu halted three weeks of coalition negotiations with opposition leader Yitzchok Herzog, the chairman of the Labor Party and chose instead to make a deal with the anti-chareidi, right-wing secularist, Avigdor Lieberman and his right-leaning Russian-dominated political party, Yisrael Beiteinu. Lieberman agreed to become the new defense minister, replacing Likud’s Moshe Ya’alon who had served in the post since 2012, but has publicly clashed with Netanyahu in recent weeks.
Netanyahu had been secretly pursuing negotiations to bring Lieberman’s party into the coalition at the same time that he had been negotiating more openly with Herzog.
Netanyahu has managed very well over the past year with a minimum 61-vote majority in the Knesset. But from the time he formed the coalition last year, he announced his intention to expand it to broaden its political base, since the defection of a single MK could conceivably bring down his government.
With the addition of Lieberman’s party, Netanyahu has expanded his coalition’s razor thin one-vote majority over the opposition to a more comfortable 66 MKs out of a total of 120, Yisrael Beiteinu started out with 6 MK’s, but that was reduced to 5 when Orly Levi-Abekasis left the party in protest against Lieberman’s agreement to forego the party’s demands for the institution of civil marriage and loosening the standards for conversion that are unacceptable to the chareidi parties.
The negotiations with Herzog were reportedly encouraged by Secretary of State John Kerry, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. They hoped that Herzog’s entry into the coalition would lead to a resumption of peace negotiations. Herzog said world leaders told Netanyahu that they didn’t trust him on the peace process, and that “a unique moment, in which a group of moderate Arab leaders were willing to implement a dramatic move” had been lost because the negotiations with Herzog’s combined Zionist Union faction had failed.
WHY THE DEAL WITH HERZOG COLLAPSED
Herzog had many demands, including a disproportionately large number of portfolios for his party members, many of whom were unhappy with the prospect of entering Netanyahu’s government. Herzog also demanded that Netanyahu provide written assurances that he would resume negotiations with the Palestinians.
According to some reports, the written assurances were the deal breaker which prompted Netanyahu to turn his full attention, at the last minute, to Lieberman. It was also clear that Herzog was being used as a tool by foreign powers pursuing their own agendas. This doubtless made Netanyahu more cautious in making commitments to him
The two were old political acquaintances; the major barrier between them was a lack of personal trust rather than a difference in political principles. The two were able to reach an understanding in a single 50-minute conversation which resulted in the announcement that Lieberman would become defense minister. Lieberman agreed to abide with the coalition agreements in place with the chareidi parties, and to work out the other coalition arrangements later. Netanyahu’s original goal had been to finalize the expansion of the coalition in time for the first meeting of the Knesset’s summer session on Monday. However, complications in negotiating the details of an agreement to provide pension payments for poor, elderly Russian immigrants delayed the finalizing of the deal.
Ya’alon was angered by the move to replace him with Lieberman, and rejected Netanyahu’s offer to remain in the cabinet as foreign minister. Ya’alon also decided to give up his Knesset seat, and was replaced by right-wing Har Habayis activist Yehuda Glick, who was 33rd on the Likud candidate list in last year’s election. Glick narrowly survived an assassination attempt by an Arab terrorist in October, 2014.
Ya’alon announced his resignation Friday morning in a statement saying: “This morning I let the Prime Minister know that due to his conduct and recent developments, and due to a lack of confidence in him, I am resigning from the government and from the Knesset and taking a timeout from political life.”
At a press conference, Ya’alon explained, “I have no intention of quitting political or public life. I will return and I plan to vie for a position of leadership in the future….I have seen every one of my roles as a calling and I have never been willing to sacrifice Israel’s security for political gain. I have worked harmoniously with the prime minister for a long time, especially during Operation Protective Edge [the 2014 war in Gaza], but unfortunately I found myself having serious disagreements with the prime minister and several ministers and MKs, on fundamental issues.”
“I fought with all my might against the phenomena of extremism, violence, and racism that threaten Israeli society’s resilience, and have permeated even the military, to the point of undermining it,” he continued. “Overall, Israeli society is a healthy one, and the sane majority strives to maintain a Jewish, democratic, liberal state, accepting of everyone regardless of religion, race, gender or ethnicity. . . But unfortunately, both Israel and Likud have been taken over by dangerous extremists, undercutting our home and threatening those in it. This is not the Likud party I joined, and the vast majority of Likud voters-the sane and responsible public-would be wise to understand the depths of the crisis and the violent spirit that has overtaken the movement.”
CLASHES WITH NETANYAHU
Ya’alon and Netanyahu clashed several weeks ago over the Israeli army’s decision to launch an investigation of soldier Elor Azaria. He was accused of manslaughter for killing a terrorist who had stabbed an Israeli in Chevron. Azaria is accused of shooting the terrorist after he had been subdued. Ya’alon spoke of Azaria as if he were guilty even before his trial.
The defense minister clashed with Netanyahu again last week when Ya’alon came to the defense of army deputy chief of staff Yair Golan. He had compared the atmosphere in Israel today to that in Nazi Germany. Ya’alon also urged other army officers to speak out even if their opinions disagreed with government policy. No doubt, Ya’alon’s open defiance of Netanyahu’s authority made him more expendable in the prime minister’s eyes, despite his distinguished record of service.
Ya’alon has been no stranger to controversy during his tenure as Defense Minister. In 2013, he called Secretary of State John Kerry a messianic zealot in pursuit of a Nobel Peace Prize by forcing Israel to resume peace negotiations with the Palestinians. He said that Washington’s security proposals for the West Bank that were to be part of an Israeli withdrawal were not worth the paper they were printed on. Ya’alon’s comments precipitated a mini-crisis in US-Israeli relations. But until very recently, he and Netanyahu had been very much on the same page in terms of their evaluation of the Iran nuclear deal and other serious new threats which Israel faces in the region today.
YA’ALON’S FAREWELL TO ARMY LEADERS
In his farewell statement to the top officers of the army, Ya’alon said, “Remember: An army must win, but it must remain human. Even after a battle or an operation or a war, we must keep our values and retain our humanity. I trust you to continue to lead and to triumph.
“Here is Israel’s shield of defense. I want to express my thanks and great appreciation to all of you, both personally, and on behalf of the entire nation. You provide the security that allows Israel to thrive. You can boast of great achievements in bringing Israel relative security and stability. You are level-headed and responsible, and led by a chief of the staff who uses force wisely. The threats to Israel have not ceased, so you will be busy in the coming years.”
DEFENDING HIS ACTIONS
Before his resignation, Ya’alon defended his condemnation of Azaria for firing on the downed terrorist in Chevron. He said that Lieberman and Education Minister Naftali Bennett ran a smear campaign against him for supporting the prosecution of the soldier. Ya’alon said that he felt abandoned by Netanyahu, who refused to back him after initially supporting his decision.
Responding to his right wing critics, Ya’alon defended his decisions on Jewish construction in the West Bank, insisting that he approved it wherever it was legal.
However, members of the Bayit Yehudi party complained that Ya’alon consistently blocked the efforts of their deputy defense minister, Eli Ben-Dahan, who was supposed to be in charge of the civil administration in the West Bank.
LIEBERMAN IS CONTROVERSIAL
Many members of the Israeli left consider Lieberman to be an anti-Arab racist. He has called for the assassination of Hamas leaders, condemned Israeli-Arab MKs as traitors, and suggested turning over the so-called Arab triangle north of the West Bank to the Palestinians as part of any land swap to enable Israel to retain its West Bank settlements. Before he founded his own Russian immigrant political party, Lieberman served as Netanyahu’s right hand man and political enforcer in Likud.
Because of his rhetoric, Lieberman is considered by some to be a political loose cannon. He surprised many by doing a good job as foreign minister in Netanyahu’s previous coalition.
Polls indicated that Israelis preferred Netanyahu’s decision to invite the Yisrael Beiteinu party to join the coalition over the Labor party.
An Israel Hayom survey found that when asked to choose between the two parties, 48 percent of respondents preferred Yisrael Beiteinu joining the coalition, 31 percent thought Labor was the better choice and 21 had no opinion the matter. But regarding Lieberman’s apparent appointment as defense minister, Ya’alon, 46 percent opposed the move and 40 percent supported it.
YA’ALON’S DEPARTURE SEEN AS A LOSS FOR LIKUD
Opinion was mixed in the Likud about Ya’alon’s ouster and resignation. MK Benny Begin, son of the former Prime Minister, called it “a loss to Likud,” and said that he regretted the circumstances. Begin said that he did not believe that it was necessary to expand the government at this time. Likud MKs Sharren Haskel and Gila Gamliel agreed that Likud will miss Ya’alon’s contributions to the party and the country.
Immigration Minister Zev Elkin said that Ya’alon’s resignation was selfish. “You don’t enter the political world for one role. You don’t say, ‘I’m going to be Defense Minister – and, if not, I’m leaving,” Elkin said.
Zionist Union’s Tzipi Livni had praise for Ya’alon, despite their political differences. “I disagreed with the policy positions of Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon – but I appreciated and [still] appreciate his ethical positions,” she said. “The problem is that his values are not the government’s.”
Another Zionist Union MK, Yoel Hasson said, “”[Ya’alon] joins a long chain of security experts who have expressed a lack of confidence in Netanyahu: Shin Bet chiefs, institution heads, Chiefs of Staff, and generals. All say: Netanyahu is bad for security.”
WHY LIEBERMAN WAS CHOSEN
While the final agreement between Netanyahu and Lieberman was reached quickly between the two of them, the foundation for the deal had been carefully developed by Likud’s Zev Elkin, who was convinced that Yisrael Beiteinu would be a much more suitable coalition partner for the Likud, than Herzog’s leftist dominated Zionist Union.
While the Zionist Union controls more Knesset votes, several party members would have refused to sit in Netanyahu’s government. Several members of Naftali Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi party would also have quit the party rather than stay in a government with Labor. In the end, taking in either party would have stabilized the coalition, but once inside, Netanyahu could expect less trouble from Lieberman’s right wing followers.
HOW DID IT HAPPEN?
Tourism Minister Yariv Levin of Likud claims media reports of advanced negotiations with Herzog pushed Lieberman to the negotiation table. Days before, Netanyahu had spoken of how Herzog was essential as an advocate for Israel during the period before the next US presidential elections. Netanyahu said he feared that unless the liberal Herzog was a member of his government, Obama might spend his last days in office seeking revenge against Israel for trying to sabotage the Iran nuclear deal, and defying his demands for concessions to the Palestinians.
Netanyahu also claimed that Lieberman’s refusal to strengthen the all-right wing coalition made it imperative for the Likud hawks to allow him to bring in the Zionist Union to form a unity government that could withstand White House pressure. Netanyahu’s aides had even planted a false story saying that Lieberman had turned down the prime minister’s offer to give him the Defense portfolio. Last Wednesday, Lieberman denied the report, and told the media that no such offer had been made. But instead of getting angry, Lieberman got even by saying that he would seriously consider such an offer if Netanyahu would make it.
Elkin and other righters in Likud much preferred a partnership with Lieberman rather than Herzog. This was the opportunity they had been hoping for. Their main obstacle was the distrust that had grown up between the two men. Lieberman was publicly critical of Netanyahu’s conduct of the 2014 war against Hamas in Gaza and Netanyahu had been disappointed by Lieberman’s announcement right after last year’s election that he would not talk with Netanyahu about joining the new coalition,
Netanyahu had recently said that “Lieberman hates me, he slanders me, he’s a dangerous man, he stops at nothing.” Lieberman suspected that Netanyahu might be using the media reports of negotiations with Yisrael Beiteinu to pressure Herzog into an agreement on more favorable terms. Yet, in the blink of an eye last week, everything changed.
Elkin had given Netanyahu a heads-up the night before Lieberman’s press conference that he would agree to join the government as Defense Minister. The prime minister was not convinced that the offer was genuine until he heard Lieberman say that he would drop his party’s demands for an increase of the number of yeshiva students being drafted into the army, and the establishment of civil marriage in Israel.
LIEBERMAN PROMISES TO HONOR CHAREIDI AGREEMENTS
After Lieberman agreed to help the chareidi parties roll back the legislation requiring yeshivos to add secular subjects to their curriculums, Netanyahu realized that his offer was genuine, and that under those conditions, the chareidi parties would not object to Yisrael Beiteinu joining the coalition.
Lieberman also dropped a demand to allow banks to make a mortgage loan of up to 90% of an apartment’s value to make it easier for cash-strapped Israelis to buy their own homes.
There were other details of the deal that had to be worked out. A compromise was reached on Lieberman’s demand for legislation making it easier for Israeli courts to sentence a captured terrorist murderer to death.
RUSSIAN PENSION PROBLEM
Lieberman’ most difficult demand was enabling elderly Russian immigrants who have not worked long enough in Israel to qualify for a pension to be credited for the years they worked in Russia. About half of the 78,000 retired Israelis living under the poverty line come from the former Soviet Union, and many are supporters of Yisrael Beiteinu. The proposal would cost the government $640 million annually, and also might face significant legal obstacles. Kulanu party chairman and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon said that he was dedicated to a solution based on all seniors in Israel being treated equally. He claims that it would be illegal to limit the expansion of the pension program only to Russian immigrants. The national union of pensioned citizens said the group would insist that the same benefits be granted to all its members based on financial need. Granting the same benefits to all pensioners would cost about $3 billion annually.
By arranging the deal, Elkin had also put himself out of the cabinet. His Immigration and Absorption Ministry will be given to one of Yisrael Beiteinu’s MKs.
But Elkin accomplished his goal. By giving Netanyahu another way to expand his coalition, Elkin blocked Herzog’s effort to enter the government and revive the peace process. Instead, Herzog returned to his 24 member Labor party discredited.
Netanyahu was pursuing separate, coalition agreements with both Herzog and Lieberman simultaneously, which suggests that he was playing one potential partner off against the other. In the end, he may have preferred to deal with Lieberman because he was sure to deliver his party members to the coalition, whereas Herzog’s ability to convince the other Labor MKs and Livni to enter Netanyahu’s government was open to serious question.
Meanwhile, Lieberman has been transformed overnight from the head of a severely diminished party into a political heavyweight.
Lieberman has deep roots in the Likud and a long standing relationship with Netanyahu.
Born in Kishinev, Moldova in 1958, Lieberman and his family immigrated to Israel in 1978 where he became briefly involved with Rabbi Meir Kahane’s Kach party, but moved over to the Likud party in 1988 where he began at the bottom as an unpaid aide of Netanyahu. Lieberman served as director-general of the Likud party starting in 1993. When Netanyahu won the 1996 election, Lieberman became the director-general of Netanyahu’s office and his political enforcer. After Netanyahu was ousted from office in 1999, Lieberman started his Yisrael Beiteinu party for Soviet immigrants.
Lieberman was a cabinet member in Ariel Sharon’s government, but was dismissed in 2004 because of his opposition to the Gaza Disengagement. Lieberman entered into a deal with Netanyahu to run a joint Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu candidate list in the 2013 Knesset election. The result was a political disaster for both, as they lost a total of 11 Knesset seats.
Fourteen months ago, Lieberman’s party barely passed the new minimum voter threshold, initiated at his own behest, to block small Arab parties from maintaining their own seats in the Knesset. Ironically, that law resulted in the union of all the Arab parties into a joint candidate list which became the third largest faction in the Knesset.
LIEBERMAN CLEARED OF CRIMINAL CHARGES
As Defense Minister, Lieberman has again become a major figure in Israeli politics. He is also finally free of persistent criminal charges that he received millions of dollars in illegal campaign contributions from tycoons while serving in public office. The charges were eventually dropped for lack of evidence.
Netanyahu waited for a year before moving to expand his coalition in order to stabilize his government. The did not want to do it in the midst of the knife intifada, which started last Sukkos, and which now seems to have subsided. Netanyahu is also now free of the annual political tussle within the coalition over the government’s budget, thanks to the agreement by his Finance Minister, Moshe Kahlon, to pass a two-year budget.
DEATH KNELL TO THE PEACE PROCESS?
State Department spokesman John Kirby made the best of Lieberman’s return to influence, saying that “We appreciate Mr. Ya’alon’s leadership and partnership as defense minister and we look forward to working with his successor. Our bonds of friendship are unbreakable, and our commitment to the security of Israel remains absolute.” Kirby was diplomatic in omitting mention of the cold shoulder that Ya’alon received from Washington as punishment for his unkind remarks about Secretary Kerry two years ago.
But the Palestinian Foreign Ministry castigated the coalition deal, declaring that “The addition of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, headed by the extremist Avigdor Lieberman, to Netanyahu’s government is fresh proof that there is no real peace partner in Israel.”
The PA ministry added that “The inclusion of Lieberman, known for his extreme right-wing stance toward the Palestinians, is new evidence that Netanyahu as usual, has preferred to promote extremism in his government.”
The PA ministry branded Lieberman’s appointment as a negative response “to the French, international and regional efforts to revive the peace process between the Palestinian and Israeli sides, and sends a strong message to the world that Israel prefers extremism and to perpetuate the occupation and settlement over peace.”
NETANYAHU FIGHTING THE FRENCH INITIATIVE
The PA statement was referring to the so-called French Initiative, to begin with an international “peace conference” scheduled for June 3 in Paris at which participating world powers would discuss a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without the participation of Israeli or Palestinian representatives. It would then be followed by a second conference in the fall at which the Israelis and Palestinians would be present to launch a new round of negotiations.
Israel has been opposed to the French proposal from the outset, because it provides another excuse for the Palestinians to avoid direct negotiations with Israel.
On Monday, Netanyahu told visiting French Prime Minister Manuel Valls that the well-meaning French initiative was misguided. He insisted that direct negotiations between him and PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas was “the only way to proceed to peace. Netanyahu suggested that such face-to-face talks could be “a different kind of French initiative” and that he would be willing to come to Paris to meet with Abbas for that purpose at any time.
Netanyahu went out of his way to be polite to Valls, who is known to be the most pro-Jewish of the senior French government officials. The Israeli prime minister added, “Though we have some disagreements on the best way to achieve peace, I deeply appreciate your commitment to pursue it. I know how much you care about ending the terrible violence that has plagued our region for far too long, and I want to thank you and [French] President Hollande for your commitment to peace. We share the same goals: peace, two states for two peoples, and an end to war.”
HERZOG REFUSES TO STEP DOWN
After learning that Netanyahu had chosen to deal with Lieberman rather than meet his demands, Herzog said that “Israeli citizens will now have to deal with a government whose policies are borderline crazy.”
Despite his failure to create a national unity government, Herzog said that he had no intention of stepping down from the opposition leadership, which, he said, would only “provide dubious satisfaction to left-wing radicals.”
He said he had no idea Netanyahu was speaking to Lieberman and that his talks had reached a stage at which Netanyahu was willing to guarantee him the defense and foreign affairs portfolios and a settlement freeze, a halt to further West Bank construction as well as a veto on any legislation Labor considered racist, plus as agreement on a far-reaching socioeconomic program. A draft of the failed deal stated that “Israel would favorably consider the idea of regional reconciliation and certain elements of the Arab peace initiative, and will express a true desire to engage in dialogue with relevant Arab countries.”
HERZOG CLAIMS HE CALLED OFF THE TALKS
Herzog claimed that it was he who cut off the unity talks rather than Netanyahu.
“I informed Netanyahu of the end to negotiations last night,” Herzog said last Wednesday morning shortly after Lieberman was proclaimed the next defense minister. “The talks stopped because we had reached a dead-end after a string of far-reaching agreements,” he said. “I demanded that all of the agreements be in writing, but the Prime Minister refused, particularly those concerning the two state solution, which he wanted to be a verbal agreement. I don’t believe [that would have been sufficient.]”
At the same time, Herzog blamed extreme left-wingers in his own party for contributing to the failure of the unity talks. He castigated Labor party Shelly Yachimovich who had opposed the talks, saying that “Political bodies run according to certain basic rules. You can’t say that anyone who talks with the prime minister is a dog crawling on all fours . . I find that unacceptable.”
“The same people preaching that we talk with Hamas took every action to block a move that would have brought historic change, without knowing a thing about the negotiations,” Herzog said. “Now Israel and its people will have to deal with a government whose policy is already verging on insanity. This is what I tried to stop.”
NETANYAHU STILL HOLDING THE DOOR OPEN
Netanyahu declared at a cabinet meeting that “I’m keeping the [Foreign Ministry] portfolio [and others] as an additional option for further expanding the government and add the Labor Party as well. Keep in mind that this includes not only portfolios, but diplomatic actions as well.”
“A government that is as broad as possible is the best thing for Israel,” Netanyahu said. “I think that a broader coalition will help us meet the many challenges facing us and also take advantage of the opportunities.”
He added that the expanded coalition would “continue to strive for a diplomatic process with the Palestinians and we will do so with the assistance of others in the region.”
NETANYAHU TELLS ISRAELIS TO STOP CRYING OVER YA’ALON
During a press conference with visiting Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, Netanyahu added, “I hear these voices in the media, the self-flagellating voices, the fear-mongering. I suggest they quit their crying and moaning.”
He added that, “In politics, people say all sorts of things, but I, on the other hand, keep my words to a minimum. I never make personal attacks. . . I do not deal with words; I deal with actions.”
Citing his experience as a former army officer who had been in combat, Netanyahu said he would take responsibility for the country’s security. “I see to Israel’s security and lead the operations. In the end, the prime minister navigates all the operations with the defense minister and army chief of staff. It seems I haven’t done a bad job during my years as prime minister, and so it will continue [with] responsible, determined, intelligent policies designed to uphold security.
Netanyahu also described his recent efforts to work on an initiative with Arab states like Egypt, which have shared regional interests with Israel. “One of those intersts is to advance a real peace agreement between us and the Palestinians. Possibly, with their help, we can overcome a few obstacles.”
HERZOG UNDER FIRE IN LABOR
In response to Netanyahu’s renewed invitation to join the coalition, Herzog said: “At the moment of truth, each person made his choice. Netanyahu chose Lieberman-Bennett, and we have chosen to fight him.”
But in the wake of his failure to close the deal with Netanyahu, Herzog was faced with a revolt against his party leadership. Five Labor Party MKs, Stav Shaffir, Shelly Yachimovich, Erel Margalit, Mickey Rosenthal and Yossi Yona, staged a boycott of a faction meeting which Herzog called Sunday.
These are Herzog’s rivals for Labor’s leadership, but this time the criticism also came from his political allies, including his partner in the leadership of the Zionist Union, Tzipi Livni, head of the HaTnuah faction. “I have strong criticism for the way you handled the negotiations. I expected a lot more from the partnership between us,” Livni said.
MK Amir Peretz said he had warned Herzog not to trust Netanyahu and said that Herzog was equally wrong for responding to the attack on him by Yachimovich. “Just as I am not prepared to hear them call you a ‘dog,’ I am also not prepared to see you become part of the incitement against the left. I want to be clear: I am a man of the left,” Peretz declared.
MK Itzik Shmuli, reproached Herzog for treating his fellow party members as pawns. “When I hear you, I feel like we are in a game of chess,” he said. “There is a king – Herzog. There is a queen – Livni. There is a rook – Eitan Cabel. But there is a sense of betrayal. We are all soldiers who are good enough to take a bullet for the party but not good enough to be part of your negotiations with Netanyahu,” he complained.
MK Merav Michaeli, one of Herzog’s closest political associates, said, “You put me and the entire faction in an impossible situation. We gave you our support and we didn’t know why or for what. You wrongfully took advantage of the trust the faction put in you,” she said.
LABOR TELLS HERZOG TO END THE TALKS WITH BIBI
Zionist Union leaders insisted that Herzog announce that the negotiations with Netanyahu are over and that there is no chance that the faction will join the coalition.
Eitan Cabel, who was a party to the secret negotiations with Herzog said, “The deal is over. There is no chance that we will enter the government. The curtain has fallen and the deadline has passed.” MK Shmuli added that it is important that “the door be slammed in Netanyahu’s face, so that our answer will be clear.”
The next day, Herzog wrote, “Netanyahu, in response to your moves during the last few days to renew negotiations on joining the government, I want to clarify publicly what I have said to you: The door is closed. This chapter has ended. You are a prisoner of extremists and we will fight against this and against them.”
At a second meeting of Zionist Union MKs, Herzog urged them to unite against the “alliance of extremists” running Israel “to fight for the country’s furture.” Tzipi Livni added that it was time to put aside the party’s “internal preoccupations” and join in the “struggle for the values of Israel.”
LAPID SAYS HE TURNED DOWN THE SAME OFFER
Meanwhile, Yesh Atid party chairman Yair Lapid announced that several months ago, Netanyahu had made the same offer to him to join the coalition that he had made to Herzog. But Lapid turned him down. Lapid said, “The prime minister came to me several months ago, and suggested that I become foreign minister and receive other portfolios. I said ‘Thank you very much, I respect you and I respect your government, but the answer is no and there is nothing to discuss.’ Why? Because we promised voters we wouldn’t join the coalition. It’s not complicated to stand by what you promise.”
Lapid added that “the last week has been filled with absolute cynicism, and the left is no better than the right.”
Fears prompted by Lieberman’s reputation for militant right wing positions led two hundred people to demonstrate in Tel Aviv against his entry into the coalition. They held signs that said: “Lieberman is a fascist,” and “Lieberman is a minister of war.”
LIEBERMAN AND THE CHAREIDIM
“We’re the true national camp,” Lieberman said after striking his deal with Netanyahu. “We have clear positions, primarily in the fields of security, immigration and absorption. If those issues are indeed on the table, and they’re willing to talk to us, not just over the defense portfolio, but also defense policy, death sentence, pension reforms. I don’t see why we should not have these talks directly, instead of in the dead of night and through mediators and leaks to the press.”
Because of Lieberman’s well-known hostility to the Torah world, Rav Aharon Leib Steinman told UTJ MKs Moshe Gafni and Uri Maklev regarding his entry into the coalition, “Agree, so long as there is no harm to Yiddishkeit.” Yaakov Litzman of UTJ relayed that message to Netanyahu while stressing that prior agreements made with the chareidim must be upheld.
Likud made it clear from the start of negotiations with Lieberman that his demands for religious reform would violate prior coalition agreements with chareidi parties and therefore would not be considered.
“Three months ago Yisrael Beiteinu announced that it would be willing to enter the coalition only if there were far-reaching changes on the issues of religion, civil marriage, the Yesh Atid formula for extending the military draft, and more,” Likud Tourism Minister Levin said. “We didn’t agree to these things, because it would have split up the government. The agreement today with Lieberman is clear. None of these things will be done without the agreement of all of our coalition partners.”
Israel Hayom reported that “Lieberman will have a free hand to vote as he pleases on the draft law, and general guidelines will be formulated for conversion and civil marriages, as in the earlier government where Lieberman sat with chareidim. But any issues of religion and state, which may have disrupted the talks due to chareidi opposition, are not among Lieberman’s coalition demands.”
A special committee will be set up to ensure that chareidi coalition agreements are not violated.
A HISTORY OF HOSTILITY
As the leader of a party whose constituency includes masses of secular and non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union Lieberman is no friend of the chareidi public. He has accused chareidim of trying to take over Israel and grabbing all government funding for yeshivos and yungerleit. He has expressed disgust at Likud’s “complete surrender” to the chareidi world.” He once stated that an agreement to stop work on railway infrastructure was “another link in a chain of government decisions which have turned the public into a hostage of the chareidi parties in the coalition.”
At a press conference, Lieberman said that upon joining the coalition, he would be reasonable with regard to chareidi affairs, but refused to discuss the chareidi draft issue or the chareidi struggle against the Tzohar organization, which advocates a relaxation of halachic standards for marriages and conversions.
“Our positions are clear,” he said. “It is clear to us that chareidi parties are part of the coalition. We are speaking of reasonable things; we were already part of a coalition with the chareidim.”
Ra’avad of the Eidah Hachareidis Rav Moshe Sternbuch told his followers that “There is no day without new gezeiros and each day’s gezeirah is worse than the day before… Now they’ve appointed a sonei Elokim (a hater of Hashem) as defense minister. It’s impossible to know what he’ll do to us.
YA’ALON’S FRIENDS AND ENEMIES
Netanyahu said after Ya’alon’s resignation that “The change in the distribution of portfolios did not stem from a crisis in confidence between us, it stemmed from the need to expand the government in order to bring stability to Israel in light of the great challenges before us.”
Moshe Gafni and Meir Porush of UTJ noted that Ya’alon had a good rapport with the chareidi world despite his secular background. Porush added that “We knew we could rely upon him not to use his powers to harm the Torah world, chalilah.” The draft law provides a lot of leeway for the defense minister to decide whether chareidim are satisfactorily filling the annual draft quotas. Ya’alon’s replacement by Lieberman may mean trouble for yeshiva student draft deferments down the road.
Right-wingers were not sorry to see Ya’alon go. He supported the freezing of Jewish construction over the Green Line, and he enforced the demolition of illegal Jewish homes and outposts. But he ignored massive illegal Palestinian construction on government land, and condemned the soldier who shot the subdued terrorist in Chevron. Ya’alon stated that the Biblical rule ‘If someone comes to kill you, kill him first’ was just a slogan and not a practical procedure to follow in our time. He led the Israeli army during that 2014 Gaza War less aggressively that the right wing wanted, and supported the swift return of terrorists’ bodies to their families to prevent arousing Palestinian anger.
“With such a defense minister, who needs a defense ministry,” a right-winger wrote. “Boruch shepatronu.”
GLICK TO KEEP AWAY FROM HAR HABAYIS
Yehuda Glick, who has replaced Ya’alon in the Knesset, said that he would heed the the Knesset’s security order forbidding MKs from visiting Har Habayis. “I won’t violate the order,” Glick said, “but I’ll try and see how it can be changed.” He promised to work “to turn Yerushalayim and Har Habayis into a center of world peace and promote justice and peace.”
He still encourages Jews to visit the Har Habayis in defiance of Das Torah. When challenged that Jewish visits to Har Habayis had triggered an Intifada, Glick replied that “Last Pesach there was a record aliyah of Jews to Har Habayis, a thousand Jews, and there was quiet.”
Worse still, Glick expressed a conciliatory attitude towards non-Orthodox Jews, telling a chareidi radio station that “The Reform have rights like all other people and are human beings, and Israeli’s chief rabbis should meet them… I do not think a Reform rabbi should be appointed rov of a town, for example, but I do not agree to place them in cherem. As religious Jews, we must act in a fashion that draws others closer and cherem does not achieve this.”
Glick also saw nothing wrong with Reform rabbis officiating at weddings so long as the rabbinate issued instructional guidelines, for after all, there was no halachic need for rabbis to attend weddings in the first place.
Another change in the new Knesset session was announced by UTJ Deputy Education Minister Meir Porush. He is giving up his Knesset seat so that it can be taken over by the next candidate on the party list Ya’akov Asher. Porush will remain a cabinet minister under the terms of the “Norwegian Law,” which allows factions to give more of their members a chance to serve in the Knesset. The new session of the Knesset will be dealing with MK Moshe Gafni’s bill to bypass the Supreme Court’s decision to open rabbinate mikva’os for Reform and Conservative conversions and the egalitarian Kosel controversy. In the process, Lieberman will have plenty of opportunity to reveal or hide his true colors.