Yisrael Beytenu leader MK Avigdor Liberman has said the relationship between religion and state was a question that could not be ignored in recent failed coalition talks between his party and Likud.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to form a government after the April elections reached an impasse when Liberman, claiming to be championing secular rights against religious coercion, refused to back down on his demands for legislation on drafting members of the ultra-Orthodox into the army, a process which the ultra-Orthodox parties strongly oppose.
After failing to build a majority coalition, Netanyahu dissolved parliament and called fresh elections for September 17 while accusing Liberman of deliberately foiling the coalition for his own political machinations.
In an interview Wednesday with Zman Yisrael, The Times of Israel group’s Hebrew site (Hebrew link), Liberman denied his stubborn stance against the ultra-Orthodox parties was simply posturing to try and win him more supporters.
“No,” Liberman said. “I brought the [ultra-Orthodox] draft bill to the Knesset in March 2018, when elections weren’t even under consideration. And even then I said that it is something that I will insist on, and that I will not give up on.”
“Religion and state is an issue which could not be ignored in this Knesset — we saw the number of seats [we had] and we saw the demands of the ultra-Orthodox.”
Liberman said his wife and daughter are both firmly religious, “but both of them support me and understand that we have no choice. I believe in the Jewish tradition but also the principle of live and let live.
“I won’t allow a mini-market to be open on Shabbat in Bnei Brak,” Liberman said referring to the largely ultra-Orthodox central Israeli town which lies just east of Tel Aviv. “But there is no reason why they should be closed in Tel Aviv.”
Before forming Yisrael Beytenu in 1999 Liberman served as director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office under Netanyahu. For the 2013 election he even hitched his party to Netanyahu’s Likud and the two ran on a joint slate. However, Liberman ended that partnership on July 9, 2014, just as Israel began its two-month military campaign in the Gaza Strip against Palestinian terror groups led by Hamas, in what became known as Operation Protective Edge.
Liberman pointed to Netanyahu’s handling of that campaign as the starting point of his split from the prime minister.
“It happened in Operation Protective Edge,” Liberman said. “His behavior was against everything that I believe in, he didn’t fulfill a single promise he made. I couldn’t continue to be a partner of his.”
Asked if he has his eyes on one day becoming prime minister himself, Liberman neither denied nor confirmed the suggestion.
“For me politics is not an obsession, it is an option,” he said. “I press on the gas pedal and go, and we will go where we go.”