Seeking to buoy support, UTJ and Yisrael Beytenu find common cause in mudfight

Ramping up rhetoric in race’s final leg, leaders of the Haredi and secular parties see in each other the perfect nemesis to drive turnout among their supporters

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Then-defense minister Avigdor Liberman, left, with Knesset Finance Committee chair MK Moshe Gafni during a Finance Committee meeting at the Knesset on December 6, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)
Then-defense minister Avigdor Liberman, left, with Knesset Finance Committee chair MK Moshe Gafni during a Finance Committee meeting at the Knesset on December 6, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

Eight days to election day, the race between the pro- and anti-Netanyahu camps is close. So close, in fact, that neither side can hope to piece together an effective government.

If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu manages to eke out a slim majority, it will likely be so slim that he will find himself forced to cater to the whims of the most right-wing lawmakers on the ballot. Netanyahu’s opponents, meanwhile, theoretically led by Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid, may well be too divided and diverse to produce a manageable coalition.

Each side is looking for any way out of the deadlock. Netanyahu has launched an unprecedented campaign for support from Arab voters and at the same time is pushing far-right Otzma Yehudit into the Knesset. Lapid, Gideon Sa’ar and other leaders of the anti-Netanyahu camp are working on finding a viable formula for unifying their disparate parties.

Many other factions are trying to take advantage of the standoff in the hope of playing kingmaker after election day. The Islamist party Ra’am, for example, has detached from the Arab-majority Joint List to mount its own run, promising to deal with anyone who wins the election, even the disliked Netanyahu, in order to deliver budgets and government attention to its marginalized Bedouin and Arab constituents.

Meanwhile, the Russian-speaking secularist Yisrael Beytenu party, led by Avigdor Liberman, and the Ashkenazi Haredi party United Torah Judaism, have adopted a different strategy. In tandem, the two have focused their campaigns over the past two weeks on each other, building their final campaign push ahead of election day on the ominous warning that the other is an existential threat to their constituents.

Yisrael Beytenu chair Avigdor Liberman visits Assuta Hospital in Ashdod on February 23, 2021. (Flash90)

Wheelbarrows and landfills

On Friday, in an interview with the Channel 12 talk show hosted by Eyal Berkovic and Ofira Asayag, Liberman was asked if he would consider serving in a coalition with the ultra-Orthodox parties if it meant ousting Netanyahu.

Which was more important, Asayag asked, “Sending Bibi [Netanyahu] packing or Avigdor [not sitting] with the Haredim?”

His answer: “The Haredim together with Bibi in one wheelbarrow to the nearest landfill.”

The comment drew a torrent of criticism over the weekend, with accusations of anti-Semitism from Haredi lawmakers and some Haredi party activists sharing photos of emaciated bodies being carried on wheelbarrows during the Holocaust.

United Torah Judaism chair MK Moshe Gafni and other party members seen with Rabbi Baruch Mordechai Ezrachi during an election campaign tour in Beit Shemesh, March 14, 2021. (Yaakov Lederman/Flash90)

The video clip of that line went viral on Hebrew-language social media. Few noticed the exchange that followed, in which Liberman went on to explain something important about his campaign strategy — namely, that he seeks to drive nonvoting secular Israelis to the polls.

Challenged again by Asayag that he cannot push both Netanyahu and the Haredi parties out of government simultaneously and will end up “hugging [Shas leader Aryeh] Deri like in the good old days” to push out the premier, Liberman made clear that his fight was with the Haredi parties — his most profitable foils if his goal is to send secular people to the ballot box — not Netanyahu.

“Listen,” Liberman responded, “The government is the Haredim, it’s not Bibi. Bibi is a hostage.”

“His only fight is to survive politically and legally. He’s willing to give everything,” he added, listing Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal as potential coalition partners of the Likud head.

Challenged again, this time by Berkovic, that the polls nevertheless suggest Liberman will need either Likud or the Haredi parties to form a coalition, Liberman finally offered a clear statement of a path out of the deadlock.

“In cities with a clear secular majority, a million people failed to show up at the ballot box” in previous rounds of voting, he said. “If a third of that number shows up, that’s 10 seats, that’s a decisive win.”

A campaign poster for Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party in Tel Aviv, photographed March 14, 2021, that reads, ‘Liberman: A government without Haredim!’ (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“So you’re calling on secular people to vote?” Berkovic asked.

“You must call for all the secular people to vote,” Liberman replied.

“We call on everyone to vote,” said Asayag.

Two-way street

Many condemned Liberman’s landfill comment, from Likud and Yamina on the right to Labor and Meretz on the left. But United Torah Judaism went further, much further.

It pivoted its entire campaign on a dime, turning Liberman and his wheelbarrow into campaign posters and videos, newspaper ads, tweets and photo ops. It has since spoken about little else. Just as Liberman found a perfect nemesis in them, they found one in him.

On Sunday, UTJ’s Knesset members gathered around a wheelbarrow for photographs, taking the opportunity to label Liberman mentally ill and anti-Semitic, and to demand he be prosecuted for incitement.

Liberman “knows about garbage dumps,” party chief MK Moshe Gafni said at the photo op, “because he smells it all the time. He lives it.”

MK Israel Eichler added: “We’re not just talking about simple bigotry of a crazed enemy, but about a concrete threat and a life-threatening call to arms. Israel Police and the state prosecution must investigate him on suspicion of serious incitement against Haredi Jews.”

A Sunday campaign video addressed undecided voters, asking, “Still debating who to vote for?” It played Liberman’s landfill clip and said: “Only a strong United Torah Judaism will leave this thing” — it wasn’t clear if “thing” meant the comment or the man — “in the television studios.”

Another video released the same day featured a wheelbarrow alongside the words, “Yvet [Liberman’s given Russian name], we found a wheelbarrow for the coming term that can carry you from studio to studio” — suggesting that he will be spending the coming term not in power, but in the opposition, with plenty of time for television interviews.

Screen capture from a United Torah Judaism campaign ad featuring Avigdor Liberman, taken March 14, 2021.

UTJ is preparing a formal incitement complaint against Liberman to the Central Elections Committee and has promised to propose a bill amending racism laws so he could be prosecuted for such comments in the future.

Why has United Torah Judaism’s campaign become so consumed by Liberman’s comment, however indelicate or objectionable it may have been?

The answer is straightforward: UTJ is not threatened by Liberman. It hopes to be rescued by him.

The Haredi party has been worried about its ballot-box prospects for some time because of intense frustration felt by many of its voters over the party’s handling of the pandemic crisis. Many ultra-Orthodox believe their community was unfairly singled out for criticism over failures to adhere to social distancing rules, and feel their representatives were not there to defend them.

One campaign video last week tried to tackle the anger head-on, showing one MK after another explaining that they made mistakes, that “we accept the criticism,” and “we’re not perfect.”

Now, eight days to the election, as if sent by the Almighty himself, Liberman has offered these much-chastised MKs a chance to make up for past mistakes.

United Torah Judaism lawmakers, including MK Moshe Gafni, second left, visit Safed Mayor Shuki Ohana for an election campaign event of the Degel Hatorah faction, in the northern Israeli city of Safed, February 26, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Existential threats?

The rhetoric has reached a fever pitch.

As Liberman tells it, the Haredi parties, abetted by Netanyahu, are dead-set on destroying secular Israel.

A day after the interview, on Saturday, Liberman wrote on Twitter: “The coalition of Netanyahu, Smotrich, Deri, Gafni, and Abbas is a fundamentalist coalition that wants to turn Israel into Iran and will put an end to the vision of Israel as a Zionist and liberal country. I suggest to Gafni, Smotrich, and the rest of those partners, to reread Herzl’s book ‘The Jewish State,’ with an emphasis on the chapter, ‘Theocracy.’”

It is the Haredi parties, he insists, who are inciting hatred, as when UTJ MK Yitzhak Pindrus insisted last week that women soldiers, primarily Russian-speaking, who convert to Judaism in the IDF’s Orthodox conversion program remain “shiksas,” a pejorative Yiddish term for non-Jewish women.

A United Torah Judaism newspaper ad featuring the face of Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman, published in Haredi newspapers on March 15, 2021. The text reads: ‘Either he wheelbarrows us all to the garbage dump, or we all run to vote [UTJ]. Beating the incitement at the ballot box!’
“’Shiksa’ soldiers, ‘Nazi’ cops and soldiers, ‘goyim’ Russians, ‘sucker’ secularists,” he wrote on Twitter on Monday, referring to oft-heard slurs from Haredi activists over the years. “In these days of wild incitement by the Haredim, there’s one party that tells the truth and doesn’t try to ingratiate itself — this time we’re putting an end to the rule of Shas and United Torah Judaism.”

And as the Haredi parties tell it, it is Liberman who seeks to destroy the ultra-Orthodox way of life.

A startling ad placed by UTJ in Haredi newspapers on Monday showed Liberman’s face, a wheelbarrow and the dire warning: “Either he wheelbarrows us all to the landfill, or we all run to vote [UTJ].”

It urged: “Beat the incitement at the ballot box!”

At core, Liberman and UTJ’s chief Moshe Gafni face the same problem. Their respective parties and broader political camps seem close to victory, yet have remained maddeningly far from it for two long years.

Each is threatened from within their camp — Liberman by secularist challengers like Yesh Atid, UTJ by the streaming of frustrated Haredi voters toward religious Zionism. Each badly needed a nemesis, a threat to their respective constituents’ way of life, to rally the ranks and draw the apathetic out to the polls.

Over the past few days, with their wheelbarrows and accusations of “anti-Semitism” and “fundamentalism,” they have found in each other the answer to their troubles.

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