The main issues for Israelis, according to just about every survey in recent years, are security and the economy. After that they usually list education and the conflict with the Palestinians. Religion - more specifically the tense relationship between political and rabbinical authority - rarely makes it any higher than the fifth spot, often bumped further down by concerns over corruption and the health system.
While some Jews in the Diaspora, particularly those belonging to the more progressive streams, are hugely worked up by issues like the Western Wall prayer-areas and conversion, these are rarely high on the Israeli public agenda.
In past elections, parties promising to fight “religious coercion” in their manifestos and making it a central part of their campaigns have sometimes been successful in drawing voters from the section of the Israeli secular middle-class which isn’t particularly aligned with either left or right. But they have never received enough seats to seriously change the balance of power. And, like nearly all centrist parties, they evaporated after one or two electoral cycles.
The coming election on September 17, the second of 2019, may however prove to be about state and religion.
Avigdor Lieberman, not known in the past for taking a particularly principled stand on religious freedom, used the proposed law on drafting yeshiva students to the IDF as his reason for not joining Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition. Mr Lieberman has been perfectly happy throughout his career to work closely with politicians from ultra-orthodox parties, especially with his old friend, Shas leader Arye Deri.
But Mr Lieberman, anxious to position himself for the post-Netanyahu era, believes he has found the most vulnerable chink in the prime minister’s armour – his alliance with the Charedim.
There are a number of reasons to believe Mr Lieberman’s political instincts may be correct. For a start, there isn’t any other major issue poised to take over this election. The conflict with the Palestinians simply isn’t on the agenda, with no real international pressure on Israel to make any concessions and the Palestinians focused largely on their internal problems. The economy, despite a growing deficit, is still strong. And Mr Netanyahu’s looming corruption indictments were already known to the voters during the previous April 9 election but didn’t seem to have a huge impact. Love or loath him, Israelis aren’t about to change what they think of their prime minister’s conduct.
But Mr Netanyahu’s reliance on the Charedim, his willingness to give in to almost all their demands as long as they continue supporting his government, is indeed a liability. The ultra-Orthodox make up about ten percent of Israel’s population. Add to them the smaller community of Charedim-Leumim, religious Zionists who agree with the Haredi leadership on most issues with the exception of their nationalism, and there are at most 15 percent of Israelis who believe that the rabbis and the rules of the Torah and Talmud should supersede democracy.
Most right-wingers have until now been prepared to concede to the Charedi rabbis a certain level of disproportionate power, as long as it means a right-wing government remains in office - but now Mr Lieberman is challenging that. He is not only demanding to pass the yeshiva students’ law, but also calling for changes in the conversion (giyur) system to roll back a recently-passed law allowing local authorities to close down shops open on Shabbat and to allow public transportation in certain areas seven days a week. Most of the Israeli public, including the right, has long been in favour of this. Mr Lieberman is not only banking on some of them voting for him but on creating a wider paradigm-change on the right.
By focusing his campaigning on this issue, highlighting not only the outrageous demands made by the ultra-Orthodox parties in the now aborted coalition negotiations, but also on recent remarks by the Union of Right-Wing Parties’ Bezalel Smotrich, another coalition partner of Mr Netanyahu, on his desire to bring back “the laws of the Torah,” Mr Lieberman is appealing to the majority of right-wingers and centrists who are not in favour of more rabbinical influence in public life. He has gone a step further, by calling for a coalition based on Likud, Blue and White and his own Yisrael Beiteinu party, contradicting Likud’s propaganda that Blue and White are “weak left.” This means the Charedi parties will no longer have power to bring down the government.
It also means Mr Netanyahu cannot be prime minister, as the leaders of Blue and White have repeatedly promised not to serve under a prime minister facing corruption charges. This is of course Mr Lieberman’s true intention.