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Avigdor Lieberman emerges as unlikely kingmaker of Israeli politics

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TEL AVIV — Benjamin Netanyahu’s future may lie in the hands of a former nightclub bouncer who began his political career as the prime minister’s aide.

Avigdor Lieberman — a former defense and foreign minister — was until this election cycle best known for his hard-line stance against Israeli Arabs.

His nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party has pushed for the death penalty for terrorists and a loyalty oath for Arab citizens, who represent 20 percent of Israel’s population. Lieberman’s controversial statements include suggesting that Arab members of the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, are collaborators who should be executed, and that “disloyal” Israeli Arabs should be beheaded.

Yet over the last six months, Lieberman has undergone a political makeover, turning his focus from security to religious freedom. In the process, he has become an unlikely torchbearer for secular Israelis as well as the likely kingmaker in Israel’s Sept. 17 election. Now his slogan is, “Make Israel Normal Again.”

Image: Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu converses with former Foreign Minister Lieberman during a campaign rally in Ashdod
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.Amir Cohen / Reuters file

It won’t be the first time he has held the keys to power. It was because of Lieberman’s opposition to the influence of religious parties that Netanyahu failed to establish a government after the elections in April. The do-over election this month is a first in Israeli history.

It was also Lieberman’s resignation as defense minister in November, citing the prime minister’s approach to militants in the Gaza Strip, that led to the fall of Netanyahu’s last government,

Lieberman is now pushing for a unity government between Netanyahu’s Likud party and its leading opponent, the center-left Blue and White. His stated goal is to prevent a government dominated by ultra-Orthodox religious parties, as Netanyahu’s previous coalitions have been.

Netanyahu made headlines earlier this week by pledging to annex parts of the West Bank. Lieberman reacted on Twitter by calling the prime minister’s speech “a dramatic statement,” adding two laughing emojis.

What is so game-changing about Lieberman’s role in this election is that he is attracting voters from both the right and the center-left, according to Gayil Talshir, a political science professor at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.

“Once Lieberman changed the agenda from security to religion-state issues, many voters crossed the right-left divide in both directions,” she said.

Lieberman has accomplished this by tapping into growing resentment toward the power of ultra-Orthodox parties in the Israeli government. His campaign is laser-focused on secular Israelis, who feel their lives are being controlled by a small but powerful minority.

Image: Police detain ultra-Orthodox Jews during a protest against Israeli army conscription in Jerusalem
Police detain ultra-Orthodox Jews during a protest against Israeli army conscription in Jerusalem on April 3, 2017.Menahem Kahana / AFP – Getty Images file

“I have nothing against ultra-Orthodox Jews, only their leadership,” said Inna Rozman, who works in the tech sector and plans to vote for Yisrael Beitenu.

“I don’t want to wake up one morning on Shabbat and lose my car because it’s suddenly illegal to drive,” she added.

Rozman, 36, lives in Ashdod, where protests erupted last year over efforts to close businesses on the Jewish Sabbath. Though her children attend secular schools, Rozman feels they are receiving religious indoctrination that didn’t exist when she grew up here.

Indeed, Israel’s education ministry has reportedly authorized the increasingly religious teaching in secular schools. Another example of this perceived religious coercion is a new government campaign urging Jewish women to take ritual baths.

‘We’re not asking for much’

Lieberman’s campaign speaks directly to voters like Rozman.

“Yes to a Jewish state, no to a halachic state,” his ads declare, referring to biblical Jewish law, which some lawmakers wish to bring back.

Lieberman’s campaign video, “We’re not asking for much,” echoes secular Israelis’ desire for ultra-Orthodox men to serve in the army and go to work. Ultra-Orthodox students are exempt from the Israeli military service that is mandatory for all Jewish Israelis when they turn 18.

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