June 19, 2019

The Epic Battle of Netanyahu and Lieberman

“The Angel of Death, the story goes, was sent to collect Avigdor Lieberman. Answering the door, Lieberman saw the spectre before him, pulled him in by the collar, pummeled him, spat on him, and threw him out. When Death returned to Heaven, he went straight to God. “Lieberman?” God asked, sizing up the bruises. “You didn’t tell him who sent you, did you?”

I heard the joke some years ago, from a veteran journalist who was hardly a fan of Lieberman, the former Israeli defense minister and the head of the secular-right Yisrael Beiteinu (“Israel Our Home”) Party. But Lieberman—who, just at the Wednesday-night deadline, refused to join Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, prompting a second national election in four months, set for September 17th—would no doubt find the story flattering. This is the persona that Lieberman has always projected: Sly, feared, and indomitable. A man who, as his campaign posters put it, “lo dofeq heshbon,” or, roughly (and cleaned-up some), doesn’t give a damn for his enemies—be they Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel, Hamas, or ultra-Orthodox communities. The leader without illusions, or “ashlayot.”

This past month, as talks to form a new governing coalition proceeded, it was the ultra-Orthodox who seemed most beneath his contempt. Their two parties, the Mizrahi Shas and the Ashkenazi United Torah Judaism (U.T.J.), won sixteen seats in April, and their announced price for joining Netanyahu’s coalition was the rescission of a draft law—formulated by his last government, when Lieberman was the minister of defense—that required military service for a steadily increasing number of students in ultra-Orthodox schools. (The draft law’s conscription mandates were reinforced by Supreme Court rulings, in 2017, which held that exempting ultra-Orthodox youth was a violation of the implied equality required by the Basic Law of Human Dignity.) By the end of the talks, the U.T.J. leader, Moshe Gafni, said on Thursday morning, both religious parties had capitulated, asking only that, if the draft law was retained by the coalition, there would be no other demands to upset the religious status quo—reductions in funding for Orthodox schools, say. By then, however, Lieberman seemed unappeasable.”

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