At the beginning of the month, Jeremy Saltan, the Bayit Yehudi staffer who runs the popular Knesset Insider blog, summarized a few interesting surveys that illuminate the path ahead for the opposition, led by the Zionist Union faction in the Knesset and by Yesh Atid in the polls.
While the world has focused on President Trump’s decision to unilaterally and formally recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital (when it has bothered to take notice at all), and progressive American Jews have smarted over tensions at the Western Wall, Israeli politics has been animated almost purely by domestic issues. First, at least two of the corruption investigations into Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Prime Minister’s Office are heading toward a critical juncture, one that Netanyahu briefly and myopically considered legislating away: the public release of the Israel Police’s summary of the investigations, which are viewed as de facto recommendations to the Attorney General’s office on whether or not to advance an indictment.
The second is the age-old religion/state clash, in which the parochial interests of the ultra-Orthodox parties, often pushed along by an extreme communal tabloid press as well insular rabbinic leaders, come into direct conflict with those of the decidedly non-Orthodox majority of Israel’s Jewish population.
This is where the good news for the opposition parties can be found: Israelis are not happy with the ultra-Orthodox parties’ stance on a flammable cultural issue: stores remaining open on Shabbat in predominantly secular cities like Ashdod, whose municipal government began fining businesses in the Big Fashion mall, a step seen by opponents as an escalation of Shabbat enforcement. Early last month, the Knesset––by a razor thin majority of a single vote––approved a law that would allow the Interior Minister to overrule local ordinances that allow stores to remain open on Shabbat. Given that the Interior Minister is Shas’s Aryeh Deri, this effectively gives one of the two ultra-Orthodox parties a veto over the wishes of residents in majority-secular cities.
The only coalition party that voted against the bill, no small order when you’re dealing with such a thin majority, was Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu. Not only did he vote against a law that both the prime minister and the coalition chairman deemed crucial to the government’s survival, but he has tried to make political hay out of it ever since.
When it was revealed that Ashdod began fining stores that remained open on Shabbat, despite the promises from the government that the status quo would not be touched, Lieberman made an impromptu trip to the city to shop at one of the supermarkets, Tiv Ta’am, which is also known for its willingness to sell non-kosher meat. This has led Deri to suggest Lieberman was a greater menace to Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jews than Tommy Lapid, the late leader of Shinui who often denounced the political excesses of the Haredim, criticism that was often burdened by ill-concealed mockery and contempt. Tommy’s son, Yair, is the leader of Yesh Atid.
Israelis seem to approve. In the first poll translated by Saltan, 59 percent of the country approves of Lieberman’s protest against the Supermarket Law. An identical majority also supports his decision to ban from participating in IDF events any rabbi who has called for the diminution of women in the armed forces.
To be sure, Lieberman’s position is not an especially courageous one. His base is still made up mostly of Jews from the former Soviet Union, who tend to be secular and are not known to harbor sympathetic feelings toward state-enforced religious coercion. With Yisrael Beiteinu standing on the precipice of electoral oblivion in most polls, Lieberman had no choice but to risk the coalition’s survival on the issue of supermarkets.
Lieberman, while no leader according to these same polls (Israelis see him and his party as corrupt), will play a pivotal role in whether the opposition can unseat the Likud from power. If Yesh Atid is it to form the next government, which in my assessment remains unlikely given lingering tensions with the Haredim and the political isolation of the Joint List, it will need the support of both Lieberman and at least one of the two center-left Zionist parties, but probably both.
With Yair Lapid shifting back to his previous posture on social issues, after a misbegotten attempt at reconciliation with the ultra-Orthodox parties, the supermarket controversy creates an opening for his party to capture the spirit of the moment. In order to form a coalition, he will need to work with UTJ and Shas, which means his victory will have to be convincing enough to leave them with no other option apart from opposition.
For his part, Lieberman has long maintained that he would not sit with Meretz in any coalition (he has said the same of Avi Gabbay’s Labor Party). The leaders of Meretz, the leftmost Zionist party in the Knesset, have often pilloried him over the years as a “racist” and a “fascist” for his hyper-nationalistic positions and tone.
Notably, the left has begun to warm to Lieberman. In an interview with Ha’aretz, MK Tamar Zandberg, a left-wing MK running for the party’s leadership, spoke of a pragmatic partnership with Lieberman. “Let’s not forget that he [Lieberman] is ready to vacate Nokdim in exchange for a two-state peace agreement,” she reminded readers of the left-leaning newspaper, referring to the settlement in which the defense minister resides with his family. Lieberman, as the leader of the only right-wing party that has not renounced the two-state solution in recent years, is the best option for the opposition to form a government.
In the final accounting, though, we are still left with an ultra-nationalist who has championed loyalty oaths for Arab citizens and the death penalty serving as the sine qua non for liberal governance in Israel. This makes the trade off between domestic social progress and advancing an equitable long-term solution to the occupation even more stark. If Zandberg’s comments are indicative of anything, the peace camp is beginning to think pragmatically, as if they’re a government in waiting. In order to form a government that pursues a division of the land for the right reasons, it will be necessary to form an alliance with those whose intentions are not so virtuous.