Avigdor Liberman at Likud-Beiteinu campaign rally, December 2012 / Getty Images
Israeli Foreign Avigdor Liberman announced today that he was pulling his Yisrael Beiteinu party out of its electoral alliance with Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud. The two combined forces in a joint electoral slate in advance of last year’s Knesset elections, but never merged the two parties into a single organization.
Liberman isn’t taking his party out of Netanyahu’s governing coalition, he told a press conference this morning. Nor is he quitting his job as foreign minister. Still, the split of the erstwhile Likud-Beiteinu alliance into two separate Knesset caucuses leaves Netanyahu in a precarious position, commanding just 20 lawmakers in his 68-member coalition.
Liberman’s split with Netanyahu comes after days of increasingly harsh squabbling over policy toward Hamas. Liberman has repeatedly called for the government to step up its attacks on Hamas, including a reoccupation of Gaza on the scale of Operaiton Defensive Shield in 2002. On Saturday, appearing in the southern city of Sderot, he slammed as “unthinkable” and “a serious mistake” Netanyahu’s offer to Hamas of a restored cease-fire, or “quiet in return for quiet.”
The dispute reached a climax at the weekly Sunday cabinet meeting, where Netanyahu and Liberman traded insults while ministers on the right lined up with Liberman and Netanyahu’s strongest support came from his usual critics to his left, including Yair Lapid, Tzipi Livni and environment minister (and onetime Labor Party chief) Amir Peretz.
Netanyahu now heads a coalition of five parties in which his own Likud, nominally the governing party, holds a plurality only by the narrowest margin. Of the coalition’s 68 lawmakers (in the 120-member Knesset), 20 belong to the Likud, 19 to finance minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, 12 to economy minister Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home, 11 to Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu and 6 to justice minister Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah.
Im Tirtzu, the right-wing Israeli truth squad best known for bashing the New Israel Fund, allowed itself a victory lap this week after taking credit for an “emergency” gathering in the Knesset on “delegitimization of Israel.”
Unfortunately, as with so much else the organization touches, the facts of the case are a bit murky. Im Tirtzu claimed in a press release afterward (full text appears below) that it had participated in a meeting of the Knesset Caucus on the Struggle Against De-legitimization of the State of Israel. The meeting’s topic, it said, was “organizations claiming to be Zionist, but which actually espouse BDS philosophies,” alluding to Im Tirtzu’s conspiratorial view of the New Israel Fund. The meeting had been convened, the release said, “as a result of Im Tirtzu’s campaign” to link the New Israel Fund with the BDS movement.
But a news report on the pro-settler news site Arutz Sheva-Israel National News said the caucus had convened “for an emergency discussion on the topic of anti-Israel boycotts in the wake of the rise of the extreme right in Europe.” The report cited Im Tirtzu leader Matan Peleg as one of a string of speakers, most of whom focused their remarks on European antisemitism, the shooting attack at the Brussels Jewish Museum and what’s been described as a link between the shooting and anti-Israel incitement.
The delegitimization caucus is one of 132 such groupings of Knesset members registered with the speaker’s office to advance specific causes. They range from promotion of Israeli-Arab peace to annexation of the West Bank, higher education, autism awareness, Israeli Arab economic development and a one-member “Tuesdays without meat” caucus.
The May 27 meeting reportedly drew several dozen attendees, including a half-dozen guest speakers, all but one of them right-wing specialists in left-wing perfidy, as well as seven Knesset members. The seven included four from the settler-backed HaBayit HaYehudi-Jewish Home party, two from Yisrael Beiteinu and one, caucus chairman Nissim Ze’ev, from Shas.
According to several reports, including a detailed account at the Haredi website Kooker, Ze’ev opened the meeting with a declaration that “delegitimization leads to anti-Semitism and antisemitism leads to terrorism.” He called for “dealing with” sources of funding for organizations that promote delegitimization and “exposing their true face,” as there are some that “pose as Zionist organizations.”
The race for chief rabbi of Israel has been getting ugly since the collapse of a proposed deal between Shas and Jewish Home to elect their respective favorites. The deal would have amended the Chief Rabbinate laws to permit a second term for the incumbent Sephardic chief rabbi, a Shas favorite, and eliminated the age limit to permit the election of a favorite of the hardline, pro-settler of Jewish Home. The deal collapsed over liberal support for a more moderate Ashkenazi contender, as well as opposition to anything that benefits Shas.
The leading candidate for Sephardic chief rabbi is now Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, chief rabbi of Safed and son of the late Mordechai Eliyahu, former chief rabbi and longtime spiritual mentor of the National Religious Party. The younger Eliyahu is currently the subject of furious behind-the-scenes politicking by liberals who want to stop his candidacy, led by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Labor Party lawmaker Eitan Cabel. The reason: a long record of extreme racism, including his notorious 2010 dictum forbidding the sale or rental of homes to Arabs.
Livni, whose Justice Ministry would be in charge of Chief Rabbi Eliyahu (since the Sephardic chief rabbi is the head of the rabbinical court system, which is under the Justice Ministry), met with Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein last month to look for legal ways to block Eliyahu. Weinstein was dubious about the legal grounds, according to Nahum Barnea in today’s Yediot Ahronot. Barnea quoted Livni as insisting: “This is intolerable. After all, we’re talking about the position of chief rabbi. What will his election do to Israel’s image abroad? He mustn’t be elected.”
Livni wanted to base legal action on an indictment issued against Eliyahu in 2002 on charges of racism after he called for the expulsion of the Arab population of Safed. Weinstein pointed out that the state attorney’s office dropped the charges in 2006 after Eliyahu agreed to apologize, which would undermine the legal grounds for blocking him now.
On Wednesday, however (presumably after Barnea had filed his Friday Supplement column), Haaretz reported that Weinstein had agreed to conduct a legal inquiry if Eliyahu’s name is formally put in nomination.
The Haaretz story linked above includes some of Eliyahu’s most controversial quotes. The Israel Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism has put together a longer list of Eliyahu’s most objectionable public statements.
Barnea points out, however, that stopping Eliyahu could be a mixed blessing. His main competition, Barnea reports, is Rabbi Avraham Yosef, a son of the former Sephardic chief rabbi and current Shas party mentor Ovadia Yosef. Though less prominent in the press, Barnea says, Yosef could be considered even more racist—and misogynistic and anti-democratic, to boot—than Eliyahu. In part this is a reflection of their ideological backgrounds: Eliyahu comes from the religious Zionist movement and recognizes the legitimacy of the state and its institutions, while Yosef emerges from a Haredi worldview that’s much more ambivalent on the question. It’s said, though, that Avraham Yosef is considered something of an extremist even within his own family.
To make his case, Barnea put together a list of parallel statements by the two for comparison. Here’s my translation: