Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has intervened in the escalating row between United Torah Judaism and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, calling on both sides to reduce the tensions, which have spiraled surrounding the Shabbat issue in the public sphere.
Liberman visited Ashdod on Shabbat and made comments that were critical of the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community and legislation passed at the behest of the Haredi parties, which incensed UTJ and led the party to publicly call on Netanyahu to restrain the Yisrael Beytenu leader.
Speaking at a meeting of coalition faction heads on Sunday, Netanyahu said, “This is the time to calm down and cool the temperature,” adding that he would speak separately with Liberman and Interior Minister Arye Deri.
“If we want this government to continue doing great things for the Israeli public, we need to reduce the flames and continue to work together,” the prime minister said.
And the tensions between the coalition partners seemed so high that other ministers felt compelled to try and help reduce the antagonism on Sunday.
Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett called on both sides, UTJ and Shas and Yisrael Beytenu, to “cease this witch hunt and see how we can live together,” while Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev said she supported the adoption of the Gavison-Medan Covenant, a broad plan drawn up over a decade ago as a framework for coexistence between religious and secular Jews in Israel.
The efforts to calm the coalition tensions came after UTJ reacted furiously to Liberman’s actions over Shabbat, and condemned his visit to Ashdod and the comments he made about the Haredi community.
The Yisrael Beytenu leader visited Ashdod on Shabbat morning to show support for businesses and food establishment in the city that have faced a crackdown on commercial activity on the Sabbath by the municipality, largely thought to be due to the demands of Haredi municipal parties.
During his time in the city, he also did some shopping, had a coffee, and spoke out against tensions in the city caused by the municipality’s increased enforcement against commercial activity on Shabbat. He decried the societal friction it has caused in Ashdod and accused Haredim of “not serving in the army, not doing IDF reserve duty, not working, and almost entirely not paying taxes.”
UTJ reacted by issuing a public statement in Haredi daily newspapers on Sunday, denouncing his “event of defiance,” his use of government resources on Shabbat, and what it described as his “fanning of the flames” against the Haredi community.
“This was a severe and unprecedented incident done deliberately, while giving the press advanced notice, with the clearly declared purpose to incite and to smear with lies and fabrications the religious and Haredi community in Israel, and to harm the holy day [Shabbat],” UTJ’s statement read.
The party claimed that the recently-passed minimarkets bill, prohibiting cities from passing laws to allow businesses to open on Shabbat, was designed to preserve the status quo on religion and state, not change it, but said that Liberman had nevertheless “chosen to divide and foment unnecessary tensions between different parts of the public, and to harm Shabbat and its holiness.”
UTJ said that Liberman’s actions were borne out of “severe political distress,” a reference to Yisrael Beytenu’s low standing in the polls at present, “for competition over the votes of hatred with Yair Lapid and with a goal of raking in political capital as a result of division between different parts of the population and deepening polarization within the nation.”
Yisrael Beytenu has been faring very poorly in the polls in recent weeks, frequently polling at just five seats, and in one recent survey getting just four seats, the bare minimum required to pass the electoral threshold and enter the Knesset.
UTJ ended its statement by demanding that Netanyahu “immediately call the defense minister to order.”
Alongside UTJ, Deri, who is Shas chairman and known to be close friends with Liberman, reportedly issued unusually strong criticism of the Yisrael Beytenu leader, declaring that their friendship was over.
“Me and Avigdor Liberman are finished,” Channel 2 reported close associates of Deri as telling them following Liberman’s Ashdod visit, saying that the defense minister had “trampled Shabbat underfoot,” and describing him as having crossed a redline.
“Even the elder Lapid, among the great haters of religion, didn’t dare do this,” he continued, in reference to Tommy Lapid, a former politician, minister and ardent secularist.
“There are things which go beyond personal friendship,” Deri reportedly added.
Liberman’s visit to Ashdod comes against a background in which the municipal authority has begun issuing warning notices of fines to businesses in commercial centers of the city for opening on Shabbat, something which activists say is a new development, while even restaurants, which are supposed to be allowed to open under the status quo, have also recently received such warning notices.
While in the city on Shabbat, the defense minister also announced that he had banned Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, Safed Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu and National Religious leader Rabbi Shlomo Aviner from participating in IDF ceremonies, over controversial comments they made regarding the integration of women into all branches of the armed forces.
This led to severe criticism from several members of Shas, including Shas faction chairman MK Yoav Ben-Tzur who called on Liberman to apologize and retract his ban on Yosef’s participation in IDF events.
“Encouraging the boycott of rabbis, public servants, and [entire] communities is a divisive step which endangers Israeli society. It has no place and will lead to civil war,” Ben-Tzur said.