Apparently revealing a complex behind-the-scenes political deal, Shas chairman Aryeh Deri indicated Tuesday that ultra-Orthodox support for Jerusalem mayoral candidate Moshe Lion is based on an agreement with Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman that would see Liberman dismantling Prime Minister Benjuamin Netanyahu’s national governing coalition.
In an outspoken radio interview, Deri intimated that Liberman, who is behind Lion’s candidacy and manages his campaign, has entered a “friendly alliance” with the Haredi political leadership under which Yisrael Beytenu would break up the Netanyahu government in order to help the ultra-Orthodox parties thwart a planned law that would legislate mandatory military service for yeshiva students.
Spokespersons for Lion and Liberman denied the existence of any such deal.
Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party ran for January’s elections on a joint slate with Netanyahu’s Likud, and Liberman, a former foreign minister, is Netanyahu’s No. 2 on that joint slate. The coalition that emerged from those elections does not include Deri’s Sephardi Shas party or the United Torah Judaism Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox party. Instead, the coalition includes two parties — the centrist Yesh Atid and the religious-nationalist Jewish Home — that are dedicated to ending the ultra-Orthodox community’s widespread exemption from army service.
“Very harsh decrees have come upon us and therefore we must fight together,” Deri told the Shas-affiliated radio station Kol Barama on Tuesday, referring to a universal draft law the coalition intends to pass in the current Knesset term. “I’m not sure, but maybe we can, perhaps, shake this coalition that decided, in fact, to critically damage the Haredi community.”
Deri went on to claim that three months ago all ultra-Orthodox parties promised Liberman they would support Lion, an accountant from Givatayim who is challenging incumbent Nir Barkat for the Jerusalem mayoralty on October 22. “But if there are cracks now, and if we don’t follow through and the Haredi parties won’t be united around the candidacy of Moshe Lion, I’m telling you we’re going to lose the chance to dismantle this [Netanyahu] coalition in the coming three years.”
Deri was apparently expressing his concern over recent reports indicating that the ultra-Orthodox leadership has decided to allow every ultra-Orthodox faction and Hassidic dynasty to vote as it pleases in the Jerusalem city elections, rather than en masse for Lion. Since polls consistently predict a Barkat victory on October 22, some Haredi leaders are reportedly reneging on their promise to endorse Lion and are instead tacitly supporting Barkat, presumably fearing the consequences of openly backing a losing candidate.
Asked by the interviewer what Lion’s candidacy has to do with the Netanyahu coalition, Deri replied, “Avigdor Liberman is the central axis of this coalition. You cannot break up this coalition without Avigdor Liberman. You cannot come to Avigdor Liberman and tell him, ‘Sir, I’m sorry but we’re assassinating you politically… [by destroying your candidate Lion’s chances of winning in Jerusalem] and then we will ask you to break your alliance with [Yesh Atid party chairman] Yair Lapid and [Jewish Home party leader Naftali] Bennett.’ It won’t work, period. You can’t act like this.”
Even if Lion is not elected, Deri added, “Liberman is with us together in this alliance, which he knows we entered together with him in partnership. Partnerships and agreements are not only done on paper.”
‘We’re going and building here and alliance of partnership — all the Haredi parties with Avigdor Liberman’
Pressed by the interviewer to reveal whether Liberman had given him an explicit promise that he would do everything in his power to get the Haredim back into the Netanyahu coalition if they supported Lion, Deri avoided a yes-or-no answer.
“Do you want me to repeat everything that I said before? You want me to get you a translation? I said it, we’re done,” he said. “We’re going and building here an alliance — all the Haredi parties with Avigdor Liberman,” he said eventually. “We have to build that alliance and not break it.”
Deri acknowledged, however, that Liberman “has his own political considerations.”
Lion, who is the official candidate of the Likud-Yisrael Beytenu faction, has repeatedly rejected suggestions that he had struck any deals with ultra-Orthodox leaders. A spokesperson for his campaign told The Times of Israel Tuesday that “there are absolutely no agreements or understandings with any individual or sector.”
Liberman’s spokesman Tzachi Moshe said that a pact to dismantle the coalition is merely “wishful thinking” on Deri’s part. Moshe also said that Deri, in Tuesday’s interview, never explicitly confirmed the existence of such an agreement, adding that it was obvious that no such deal existed.
A Yisrael Beytenu source said Deri’s statements about a secret deal were “wild, imaginative thoughts” that have no grounding in reality. The source further said that it didn’t make sense for Yisrael Beytenu — a party that has long advocated for universal conscription — to promise the destruction of the coalition so the Haredim can enter and thwart such a law.
The Barkat camp, on the other hand, embraced Deri’s interview as an opportunity to discredit Lion. “We always knew that the candidacy of Moshe Lion — a man from Givatayim — was based on dirty political tricks, but we didn’t know how deep it would run,” Stephan Miller, an adviser to Barkat’s re-election campaign, told the Times of Israel. “The truth is that Jerusalemites are too smart to buy this Deri-Liberman deal. They will vote in big numbers next week for Mayor Barkat and his party, rejecting Deri and Liberman’s dirty politics.”
A nationalist party mostly targeting secular voters, Yisrael Beytenu was one of the first voices in Israel to oppose the law that enabled yeshiva students to receive blanket draft exemptions. The so-called Tal Law was struck down by the Supreme Court last year as unconstitutional, and the Knesset has been working on new legislation ever since.
In a particularly dirty mayoral election campaign, Barkat — an independent with little backing from the national political establishment but substantial support among Jerusalemites — has accused Lion of being a marionette obedient to Deri and Liberman, attacking his competitor’s competence and integrity. Lion maintains he will not be anyone’s puppet and vows to be more attuned than the incumbent to Jerusalem residents’ real needs.