Analysis: Liberman’s campaign strategy may tear Israel’s social fabric

Liberman sees exploiting the religious-secular divide as a winning campaign strategy, but fanning the flames of the most divisive issue in Israeli society poses a risk.

By David Isaac, World Israel News

Avigdor Liberman, head of the Israel Beiteinu party, has single-handedly brought down the government not once, but twice, leaving Israel’s chattering class agape.

A consensus has formed as to his motives — it’s a bid to revive his electoral chances by exploiting secular fears of religious coercion. Overlooked has been the dangers this political strategy poses to Israel’s social fabric.

Liberman refused to join Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government over a bill to draft ultra-Orthodox, or haredi, Jews. Large numbers of haredi men receive deferments for studying in yeshivas, sparking wide-spread resentment among the rest of Israeli society that must serve in Israel’s military.

Yair Lapid, a former media personality, has already built a successful party with a major plank focusing on ultra-Orthodox enlistment, winning 19 seats in 2013, though dropping to 11 seats in 2015.

Liberman’s sinking election fortunes are what led him to also seize on the issue. Though his star shone brightly in the 2000s, it shrunk rapidly in the next decade as his base, Russian immigrants, integrated into Israeli society and sought other parties. In April, he received only five Knesset seats, down from a 2009 high of 15.

Liberman had already settled on the issue that he hopes will propel him back into the spotlight during the campaign. He abruptly switched  campaign slogans from “Liberman doesn’t answer to anyone” to “Liberman: Also Right, Secular.”

Secular Jews fear religionization, a word heard more frequently on Israeli news these days. It refers to the belief that religious Jews want to inject religion into every walk of life.

When Liberman insisted on the draft law, he did so in opposition to this perceived effort of religious Jews. Liberman said, “We’re in favor of a Jewish state but against a state run by Jewish law.”

Liberman’s strategy appears to be working, if initial polls are any indication. Two have him winning eight and nine seats in the next election.

Inherent danger

The danger in Liberman’s strategy is that he plays on a genuine divide within Israeli society concerning the very nature of the Jewish state. One side dreams of a state infused with specifically Jewish content, inspired by biblical law and serving as a “light unto the nations.” The other wants a secular, European state along the lines of Belgium, sometimes referred to as “a state of all its citizens.”

An election strategy that will further polarize the sides, as Liberman’s no doubt will, plays with fire. It’s relatively easy to fan the flames for short political gain. Putting them out is something else entirely, and may not be in Liberman’s (or anyone else’s) power to do so.

Liberman received a gift recently when the leader of the National Union party, Bezalel Smotrich, who is itching to lead the Justice Ministry, said he wants to do so “to restore” Torah law “as in the days of King David.” Smotrich is not haredi, but a religious-Zionist.

Liberman jumped on the remarks, saying “This is no longer just a comment of a delusional hilltop boy, but a statement of intent, he wants a halachic state,” he said, using the Hebrew term for Jewish law.

Even Netanyahu, in whose coalition Smotrich would participate, felt the need to distance himself from the National Union leader’s comments, aware of the potential damage it would do to his own party.

There is already a segment of secular Israeli voters, though sharing many right-wing views on security and the economy, who will not vote Likud because they believe the party is too beholden to the ultra-Orthodox.

With Liberman eager to bring the matter of religious coercion to the fore, and the apparent eagerness of the other side to talk about their vision for the Jewish State, the divide has the potential to become a central campaign issue.

There have been predictions before about the fault-lines along which Israeli society will crack. First, it was to be along communal lines, with much ink spilled about the coming break-up between Sephardi Jews (those hailing from Africa and the Mideast) and Ashkenazi Jews (those coming from Europe).

But parties appealing to specific communities never performed well in Israel. In 1949, Sephardic lists won four seats in the Knesset. By 1951, it was down to two.

Following the Six Day War, experts said the issue of territories would split Israel asunder, with one side looking to hold onto the lands won in 1967 while the other would see them as a bargaining chip to trade for peace between Jews and Arabs.

There is, perhaps, a danger here, too, as the issue touches on the character of the Jewish State, given that Judea and Samaria make up the biblical heartland of the Jewish people.

But for the time being at least, the issue has settled down as no one thinks progress can be made on a “two-state” solution.

Ultimately, the religious-secular divide may prove the most dangerous as it goes to a core disagreement about Israel’s character and mission – a state built on Jewish law or along the lines of a secular, European state.

Liberman may benefit greatly from his strategy. The question is: Will Israel?