A random encounter in the corridors of the Knesset between Knesset members Moshe Gafni of Yahadut HaTorah and Avigdor Liberman of Yisrael Beitenu is indicative of the conflict facing the ultra-Orthodox representatives in the Knesset as the third round of elections approaches. The contrast between a smile in the corridor and bitter verbal attacks bothers them. They don’t know whether they should let themselves be dragged into a conflict with Liberman, especially since the Likud and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu both insist on keeping an open channel of communication with the chairman of Yisrael Beitenu.
Gafni and Liberman met by chance Dec. 9, about three weeks after the heated exchange between Liberman and the ultra-Orthodox members of Knesset. A photo that captures the encounter for perpetuity shows the two men smiling. Later, Gafni rushed to tell the press — with emphasis on the ultra-Orthodox press — that this was a chance meeting, and that the mood was very tense. In fact, they had a brief conversation, during which they tried to clarify the harsh statements made recently.
An earlier Al-Monitor article reported on the recent conflict between Liberman and the ultra-Orthodox, which shut the door on the kind of cooperation that the two sides once had. At a press conference in the Knesset Nov. 20, Liberman left many people fuming, when he bundled the ultra-Orthodox parties — Shas and Yahadut HaTorah — with the Arab Joint List, which represents Israel’s Arab public. “We should say it as it is — the Joint List is really a fifth column. But unfortunately, the Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] parties are also becoming more and more anti-Zionist,” he said at the time. Liberman later raised the issue of yeshiva students, saying that 150,000 men study in yeshiva instead of going to work. He believes that the country needs no more than 1,500 students for whom Torah study is their profession. “All the rest can go to work. Studying the Torah is a blessing but they should do it on their own dime. We can’t bring up a generation of needy unfortunates here,” Liberman contended.
The Yahadut HaTorah faction convened a short time later for an urgent meeting. “A shameful and ugly horror show … full of ignorance and hatred," was how Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman described Liberman’s speech. “Anti-Semitism has been rediscovered today.” His fellow party member Gafni added that, “Liberman must leave the political establishment. We don’t recall such anti-Semitism in the Israeli Knesset … in another country this man would go to jail. Does this corrupt man know what we do? Who are you? Zero."
In a conversation with Al-Monitor at the time, Gafni claimed that Liberman realized that there was nothing to set his faction apart from the other right-wing parties and was afraid he would not pass the electoral threshold. He said that “he decided to go on the safe path of 'hit the ultra-Orthodox' and won popularity. Liberman betrayed the right-wing bloc to which he belongs, in order to get better press and remain politically relevant.”
But what about the ultra-Orthodox themselves? Could they be paying a price because of this conflict? Will their conflict with Liberman not help them bring more voters to the polls? Based on past experience, the answer seems to be yes. Nevertheless, in both of this year’s elections [April and September], they showed restraint and even adopted a policy of embracing Liberman. They believe that Liberman is waiting for the ultra-Orthodox to attack him, so that he can build on that and bring more [secular] voters to the polls. That's why it is better for them to “embrace Liberman” and remind him that he cooperated with them on many issues in the past.
The fact is that at this stage at least, the ultra-Orthodox may be critical of the chairman of Yisrael Beitenu, but they are moderating their tone anyway. The last sharp clash took place over two weeks ago, on Dec. 1 — a long time in Israeli politics — when Aryeh Deri of Shas accused Liberman of demanding billions to provide pensions for immigrants from Russian-speaking countries. An infuriated Liberman claimed that this was “anti-Semitism and racism.” Similarly, the name “Liberman” has barely been mentioned by Yahadut HaTorah over the past few weeks.
Rabbi Yisrael Gliss is a journalist and leading opinion-maker in the ultra-Orthodox community. On Dec. 11, he wrote. “I would suggest that the representatives who speak for our community, at least ostensibly so, not get into a war with Liberman. He is not [Blue and White senior Yair] Lapid, who is consumed by hate for anything Jewish and always has been. … If we enter a new election campaign, it would be better if we focus on our groundwork and invest our efforts in bringing out voters — whether they may not vote or certainly will not vote otherwise — instead of waging a campaign of aspersions and intimidation.” Gliss contends that Liberman is not really opposed to the ultra-Orthodox. His real problem is with Netanyahu.
These remarks might also explain why the ultra-Orthodox parties avoided attacking Liberman in the final days of the 22nd Knesset. Up until the very last days, Netanyahu refused to give up hope that he could form a narrow, right-wing government with Yisrael Beitenu, while in the days before the current Knesset was dissolved, his representatives promised Liberman almost everything he wanted just to get him to join his coalition. Even after Liberman’s brusque attack on the ultra-Orthodox, Netanyahu and his circle attempted to temper reactions to him and his remarks. So, for example, the Likud faction chairman, Knesset member Miki Zohar, got into a heated argument with Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich after he attacked Liberman Nov. 20.
While the more experienced ultra-Orthodox members of Knesset have so far avoided ratcheting up their rhetoric about Liberman, the ultra-Orthodox media is less reluctant to do so. Their newspapers and websites claim that Liberman is solely to blame for the political chaos plaguing the country. So, for instance, the Kikar HaShabbat website reported that “Knesset member Avigdor Liberman, the politician who dragged the State of Israel into turmoil like it has never seen before, is leading it to a third election in just one year.” On Dec. 15, Behadrei Haredim website highlighted Smotrich’s comment that Liberman is “a dangerous man without any ideology.”
As the next election approaches, the big test facing the ultra-Orthodox will intensify. They will have to choose between maintaining their restraint — if and when Liberman attacks them — and responding furiously, even if it helps him attract more voters to Yisrael Beitenu.
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