Israel's Lieberman takes on ultra-Orthodox ahead of polls

Jerusalem (AFP) –


In a former hotel turned social housing building for elderly Israelis from the former Soviet Union, one politician remains more popular than all others.

"Here, the vast majority of people vote (Avigdor) Lieberman," said Nadejda Yermononok, 75, referring to the gruff hardline leader of the nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party.

At the "Diplomat" building housing more than 400 people in southern Israel, residents call the ex-defence minister Yvet, the Russian version of his first name.

Lieberman has long relied on support from Israelis who, like him, have roots in the former Soviet Union but polls show the ex-defence minister has widened his appeal recently, making him a potential kingmaker in the September 17 elections.

He has done so in part with his stand against ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties, whom he accuses of seeking to force religious law onto Israel's secular population.

He has also been seeking to end exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox from performing mandatory military service like most other Jewish Israelis.

In many ways, Lieberman is the reason Israel is holding another election only five months after the polls in April, unprecedented in the country's history.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party along with its right-wing and religious allies won a majority of seats in April, but Lieberman prevented his old nemesis from forming a coalition.

- 'Only one who fights' -

Lieberman refused to agree to a coalition deal that did not include legislation that would seek to have the ultra-Orthodox serve in the military.

That was a deal-breaker for the ultra-Orthodox parties, who would have been an important part of the coalition.

Netanyahu opted for fresh polls rather than risk the possibility of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin selecting someone else to try to form a government.

And he harshly criticised Lieberman, who headed the premier's office during Netanyahu's first term in the 1990s.

Lieberman resigned as defence minister in November over a Gaza ceasefire deal which he called a "capitulation to terror".

Most of Israel's Russian-speaking population arrived in the 1990s, and those with origins in the former Soviet Union now make up some 12 percent of the country's nearly nine-million-strong population.

Yermononok said Lieberman "is the only one who fights the special treatment the ultra-Orthodox get" from the state -- echoing a common complaint from secular Israelis.

They "don't work, don't serve in the army, receive child benefits and all sorts of discounts in transportation, municipal taxes and education," the former nurse said.

"Other Israelis, including the Russians, work like crazy, pay their taxes and send their children to combat units."

Ultra-Orthodox men have been exempted from military service to devote themselves to religious studies since the creation of Israel in 1948 when there were only a few hundred to enjoy that privilege.

Now there are tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews who don't serve in the army, and the community makes up about 10 percent of the population.

Lieberman is calling for a "broad liberal government" that would include Beitenu, Netanyahu's right-wing Likud and the centrist Blue and White alliance, the main challengers to the premier.

His stance has resonated with voters, said Mano Geva, who heads the Midgam research and consulting firm.

Most of those who did not vote for Lieberman in April but plan on doing so in September are young and Israeli-born who are not against the ultra-Orthodox in principle, said Geva.

"They're against coercion, dictates, a halakha (Jewish law) state, and Lieberman is perceived as a determined person who keeps his word," he said.

- 'Stronger than Netanyahu' -

Zeev Khanin, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University, said Lieberman has managed to transcend the idea that he represents only the Russian-speaking community.

The "contemporary agenda of Lieberman is not just about the Russian street. It's more addressed to the various groups of the Israeli society, and Russian speakers here are not different from the other groups," he said.

Lieberman's climb in opinion polls has not gone unnoticed by Netanyahu, who has also sought to attract votes among Russian speakers.

Netanyahu's campaign posters includes one showing him alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the premier has said he hopes to visit Russia later this week to hold talks with him.

The prime minister also visited Ukraine in August in what was widely seen as part of efforts to cut into Lieberman's base of support.

While there, he discussed an important subject for voters who would usually choose Lieberman: an agreement allowing Ukrainian retirees living in Israel to receive their pensions.

At the Diplomat building, some said they prefer Netanyahu, but not Maria.

"The situation in the country is too difficult," the 90-year-old said. "We need someone strong and Lieberman is more serious and stronger than Netanyahu."