Liberman’s stand against ultra-Orthodox coercion sees him gaining popularity
Hardline ex-defense minister has relied on support from Russian-speaking Israelis, but polls show his refusal to capitulate to demands of religious parties is widening his appeal
AFP — In a former hotel turned social housing building for elderly Israelis from the former Soviet Union, one politician remains more popular than all others.
“Here, the vast majority of people vote (Avigdor) Liberman,” said Nadejda Yermononok, 75, referring to the gruff hardline leader of the nationalist Yisrael Beytenu party.
At the “Diplomat” building housing more than 400 people in southern Israel, residents call the ex-defense minister Yvet, the Russian version of his first name.
Liberman has long relied on support from Israelis who, like him, have roots in the former Soviet Union, but polls show the ex-defense minister has widened his appeal recently, making him a potential kingmaker in the September 17 elections.
He has done so in part with his stand against ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties, which he accuses of seeking to force religious law onto Israel’s secular population.
He has also been seeking to end exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox from performing mandatory military service like most other Jewish Israelis.
In many ways, Liberman is the reason Israel is holding another election only five months after the polls in April, unprecedented in the country’s history.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party along with its right-wing and religious allies won a majority of seats in April, but Lieberman prevented his old nemesis from forming a coalition.
‘Only one who fights’
Liberman refused to agree to a coalition deal that did not include legislation that would seek to have the ultra-Orthodox serve in the military.
That was a deal-breaker for the ultra-Orthodox parties, which would have been an important part of the coalition.
Netanyahu opted for fresh polls rather than risk the possibility of President Reuven Rivlin selecting someone else to try to form a government.
And he harshly criticized Liberman, who headed the premier’s office during Netanyahu’s first term in the 1990s.
Liberman resigned as defense minister in November over a Gaza ceasefire deal that he called a “capitulation to terror.”
Most of Israel’s Russian-speaking population arrived in the 1990s, and those with origins in the former Soviet Union now make up some 12 percent of the country’s nearly nine-million-strong population.
Yermononok said Liberman “is the only one who fights the special treatment the ultra-Orthodox get” from the state — echoing a common complaint from secular Israelis.
They “don’t work, don’t serve in the army, receive child benefits and all sorts of discounts in transportation, municipal taxes and education,” the former nurse said.
“Other Israelis, including the Russians, work like crazy, pay their taxes and send their children to combat units.”
Ultra-Orthodox men have been exempted from military service to devote themselves to religious studies since the creation of Israel in 1948 when there were only a few hundred to enjoy that privilege.
Now there are tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews who don’t serve in the army, and the community makes up about 10% of the population.
Liberman is calling for a “broad liberal government” that would include Beytenu, Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud and the centrist Blue and White alliance, the main challengers to the premier.
His stance has resonated with voters, said Mano Geva, who heads the Midgam research and consulting firm.
Most of those who did not vote for Liberman in April but plan on doing so in September are young and Israeli-born who are not against the ultra-Orthodox in principle, said Geva.
“They’re against coercion, dictates, a halakha (Jewish law) state, and Liberman is perceived as a determined person who keeps his word,” he said.
‘Stronger than Netanyahu’
Zeev Khanin, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University, said Liberman has managed to transcend the idea that he represents only the Russian-speaking community.
The “contemporary agenda of Liberman is not just about the Russian street. It’s more addressed to the various groups in Israeli society, and Russian speakers here are no different from the other groups,” he said.
Liberman’s climb in opinion polls has not gone unnoticed by Netanyahu, who has also sought to attract votes among Russian speakers.
Netanyahu’s campaign posters include one showing him alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the premier has said he hopes to visit Russia later this week to hold talks with him.
The prime minister also visited Ukraine in August in what was widely seen as part of efforts to cut into Liberman’s base of support.
While there, he discussed an important subject for voters who would usually choose Liberman: an agreement allowing Ukrainian retirees living in Israel to receive their pensions.
At the Diplomat building, some said they prefer Netanyahu, but not Maria.
“The situation in the country is too difficult,” the 90-year-old said. “We need someone strong and Liberman is more serious and stronger than Netanyahu.”