Former Defence Minister and head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, Avigdor Lieberman, has conditioned his support for newly-re-elected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition on the latter's passing of the Haredi draft law.
Following last week's general election, representatives of each political party have met with Israel's President, Reuven Rivlin, to recommend their choice of prime minister. These discussions took place yesterday and today, live streamed from the president's residence for the first time in a bid to increase the transparency of Israel's electoral process.
After two days of discussions, Netanyahu has received the most recommendations from the 11 parties that will make up the new Knesset. This outcome was widely expected, given that his Likud party won 36 seats in the election to become the largest faction, as well as the fact that most right-wing parties had vowed in advance to support his premiership.
However, one right-wing party which did not automatically grant its support was Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu, which has found itself in a powerful negotiating position after having won five seats, the exact amount which could collapse Netanyahu's 65-seat coalition and leave the prime minister without a functioning majority.
Lieberman yesterday ended this speculation by offering to support Netanyahu's coalition, but on the condition that it pass the so-called Haredi draft law, a controversial piece of legislation which seeks to conscript the ultra-Orthodox community into the Israeli army. The law is vehemently opposed by the Haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ), two long-time coalition members that have threatened to withdraw their support should the law be passed.
Speaking at a meeting of his party's central committee yesterday, Lieberman stressed that "if we're forced to choose between giving up on the [Haredi] draft law to remain in the coalition, or sitting in the opposition, we will go to new elections". He added: "We're trying to support common sense and logic on issues of religion and state. Those who aren't willing [to do the same] will be responsible for the failure to establish the [next] government."
Lieberman also lamented the growing power of the ultra-Orthodox parties – which increased their representation by one seat each in last week's election – saying that the "the Haredi-Hardali wing of the right grew to 21 or 22 seats, something I see as a threat". Hardal, as the Times of Israel explains, "is a Hebrew acronym for 'Haredi-nationalist,' a branch of the religious-Zionist community that […] resembles the ultra-Orthodox community on many social and political issues" and refers primarily to the camp represented by the Union of Right Wing Parties (URWP).
For their part, the ultra-Orthodox have hit back at Lieberman's manoeuvring, with MK-elect Uri Maklev of UTJ saying: "He [Lieberman] is trying hard to gain a negotiating advantage in order to receive a more lucrative portfolio. He is trying to be the bad boy of the coalition […] He wants to be defence minister."
Lieberman has issued many demands in the week since the election in a bid to capitalise on his kingmaker position. Yesterday head of Yisrael Beiteinu's negotiating team, MK-elect Oded Forer, claimed that Lieberman wanted to be once again given the defence portfolio. Forer seemed to suggest there would be little resistance to this idea, dismissing it as a "tiny problem".
However, it is as yet unclear whether Netanyahu will be willing to hand the post to Lieberman, particularly given the fact that he rendered the previous coalition untenable by resigning from the ministry in a disagreement over the government's approach to Hamas and the besieged Gaza Strip.
The Haredi draft law has exposed a deep rift within the right-wing in the past few years. Under current Israeli law, the ultra-Orthodox are exempt from national service in the Israeli army on the grounds that they must study in yeshiva, or religious school. However, in September 2017 Israel's Supreme Court struck down the current law, granting the government a year to amend the legislation or face an automatic draft of ultra-Orthodox youths.
One alternative put forward proposed minimum yearly targets for ultra-Orthodox enlistment that, if not met, would result in financial penalties for those yeshivas which fall below the threshold. The ultra-Orthodox parties have fought vehemently against this amendment, prompting the Supreme Court to extend the law's deadline in a bid to ease tensions and keep the ruling coalition afloat. The law will now be once again put before the Knesset in July.