Haredi support for Jerusalem mayor candidate said to be part of draft law deal

Moshe Lion reportedly recorded admitting that Defense Minister Liberman promised ultra-Orthodox factions he’ll promote softened enlistment law in exchange for backing

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (L) speaks with Moshe Lion (R) during a special cabinet meeting for Jerusalem day in Ein Lavan spring in Jerusalem on June 2, 2016. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (L) speaks with Moshe Lion (R) during a special cabinet meeting for Jerusalem day in Ein Lavan spring in Jerusalem on June 2, 2016. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

A contender to be the next mayor of Jerusalem has reportedly hinted in meetings with local activists that his endorsement for the job by top ultra-Orthodox rabbis is part of a larger political deal between Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and Haredi parties in the Knesset.

According to recordings from several months ago and reported by the Yedioth Ahronoth daily on Thursday, Moshe Lion has insinuated that in exchange for the religious leaders’ support for his candidacy, Liberman has promised to promote a softened version of a law to draft ultra-Orthodox students into the military.

The recordings’ existence was published by the highly circulated newspaper just five days before the bitterly contested Jerusalem elections.

Last month, the spiritual leaders of the ultra-Orthodox Shas and Degel HaTorah political factions, Rabbis Chaim Kanievsky and Shalom Cohen, threw their support behind the Jerusalem mayoral candidacy of Lion, a Jerusalem councilman who was previously defeated by current mayor Nir Barkat in 2013.

Lion is running against Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin; political activist and councilor Ofer Berkovitch; ultra-Orthodox councilor Yossi Deitch; and little-known Avi Salman.

Moshe Gafni and Yaakov Litzman of the United Torah Judaism party respond to the preliminary results of the elections in Tel Aviv, Tuesday. (photo credit: Yaakov Naumi/Flash 90)
Moshe Gafni (center) and Yaakov Litzman (right) of the United Torah Judaism party in Tel Aviv, January 2013. (photo credit: Yaakov Naumi/Flash 90)

In the recordings, Lion reportedly reassures activists concerned about the draft law by saying “it is going to work out” since Liberman had met with MKs Yaakov Litzman and Moshe Gafni, leaders of the two factions that make up the United Torah Judaism (UTJ) Haredi coalition party.

“I’m going to tell you a national secret. Can I tell you?” Lion tells an activist in one of the recordings, after discussing the draft law, adding: “He met Litzman and Gafni.”

“Who? Ivet?” the activist says, referring to Liberman by his nickname, to which Lion answers: “Yes.”

Lion said that Liberman’s claim that the defense establishment would be crafting the ultra-Orthodox draft law was just a cover, and that in reality the defense minister can shift its position according to his political needs, the report said.

The mayoral candidate also sounded “very concerned” that such a deal would be publicized.

Lion is a longtime friend of Liberman and Shas party leader Aryeh Deri.

A Jerusalem council member for five years, Lion received the backing of much of the Haredi community in the city in the 2013 mayoral race, but was nonetheless defeated by Barkat.

Moshe Lion (R) seen with Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat, during the wedding of Lion’s daughter in Neve Ilan, June 19, 2016. (Yaakov Cohen/Flash90)

The fight over the ultra-Orthodox vote is central to the October 30 race, representing some 37% of the Jewish population of Jerusalem, according to recent CBS data (the Arab population of Jerusalem largely boycotts the municipal elections).

A central issue for that population is a contentious Knesset law bill, written by the Defense Ministry and promoted by Liberman’s secularist Yisrael Beytenu party, which sets minimum yearly targets for ultra-Orthodox conscription that, if not met, would result in financial sanctions on the yeshivas, or rabbinical seminaries, where they study. At the same time, it also formalizes exemptions for the vast majority of yeshiva students. Many ultra-Orthodox are deeply opposed to enlistment in the army.

Analysts had predicted that disagreement over the bill could collapse the government within weeks of the Knesset reconvening earlier this month, with national elections being moved up to spring instead of the scheduled November 2019 date. But although ultra-Orthodox coalition parties have said they will oppose the bill, they have also indicated they won’t quit the government if it passes.

The government must pass the law by a Supreme Court-set deadline in December.

In August, prosecutors announced they would not pursue corruption charges against Lion, citing insufficient evidence. He had been suspected of illegally giving money to Deri in 2013 in exchange for supporting his failed mayoral bid.

Marissa Newman and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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