October 22, 2019

Can the Right Keep Charedis in Check?

FILE PHOTO: Israel's Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman delivers a statement to the media following his party, Yisrael Beitenu, faction meeting at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem November 14, 2018. REUTERS/Ammar Awad/File Photo

Three weeks later, Israel’s elections seem almost like an afterthought. Was there a round of elections? There was. And what was the outcome? Well, it’s a little complicated as we are still waiting for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to form a coalition. Doesn’t he have a majority? That depends on one’s definition of majority. There is a majority of members of Knesset (MKs) who agree to join a coalition under Netanyahu, but they don’t yet agree on the terms, on some of the guiding principles for forming the coalition.

Looking at the debates between the parties that will ultimately form the coalition — assuming that all look to compromise and not to clash — is interesting. First, because it says something about Israel and its main dividing lines. The coalition is going to be right-wing. And for those thinking that the election was close, or that Israel is divided on right-left issues, in fact, the coalition will be less right wing than it ought to be. Or, put another way, Israel is more right-wing than election outcomes indicate.

Israel’s 3.25% electoral threshold is the key to understanding the real strength of the right. As professor Dan Ben-David of the Shoresh Institute shows in a short paper he published earlier this week, this relatively high threshold prevented three additional rightist parties from entering the Knesset. The right-wing-religious bloc thus lost close to 8% of the vote. On April 30, when the new Knesset was sworn in, this bloc seated 54 percent of the new MKs. But on election day, 57 percent of Israel’s voters cast their votes for right and religious parties.

Such majority is a blessing and a curse for the winning side. It gives it a sense of invincibility. It prompts an appetite for more achievements. The prospective partners of the coming coalition are having this fight because of this appetite for power. The main issue of debate: Will the next government implement policies promoted by the religious parties? Will it let Charedi men evade the draft and further enforce religiously-motivated policies in the public sphere?

This is important because it points to a possible crack in the natural coalition of the right that could be exploited by other parties. The religious parties know that they hold the key to the rule of the right (see graph, right). This could lead to miscalculation and overreach. They assume that their ideals won, when in fact their ideals won only because of their marriage with the ideals of the right. Israelis want a hawkish government. They are willing to tolerate, up to a point, Charedi participation and demands as they understand this is the price they must pay for such a government.

Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of a right-wing party whose voters are mainly secular Israelis of Russian origin, is currently the one stomping on the brakes. He thinks that this time the price demanded by the Charedi parties is too high. That is, he calculates that there is room for a right-wing party whose alliance with the religious parties isn’t immediate and not unconditional. That’s a bold bet, a risky bet and an interesting bet.

Consider the following three scenarios:

Lieberman wins and the Charedi parties cave. The conclusion: If you are right-wing, like most Israelis, and have a dislike of Charedi power, like most Israelis, Lieberman is your best political choice.

The Charedis win and Lieberman stays out of the coalition. The outcome: A narrow, unstable coalition, disliked by many rightists who don’t appreciate its oppressive religious tendencies. In the next round, Lieberman has a claim on him needing more power.

The clash prevents Netanyahu from forming a new government. The outcome: Many blame Lieberman for a meager end to a promising beginning, but there are also those who blame the Charedis. These voters understand that there is a need to keep Charedi power in check so as not to put the right-wing rule at risk. Some of them might even vote for Lieberman to achieve this goal.

There is only one outcome that ends badly for Lieberman: If he loses the battle and caves. In such case, right-wingers who accept the reality of having to surrender to the Charedim can vote Likud — there is no advantage to voting for Lieberman. Those among them who do not accept this reality will need to search for another political home.

The bottom line: Lieberman identified a niche. His insistence on reducing the price of Charedi participation might not be a bluff.

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.