20:52 GMT29 January 2020
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    For Israel’s Russian-speaking community, which makes up some 20 percent of the country’s total population, the upcoming elections are an opportunity to raise their voice against the religious coercion and security threats challenging the country's stability.

    When Israel's Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef called immigrants from the former USSR "total gentiles" who "go to church every week" and who "were brought to the Jewish state to decrease the influence of the Orthodox community", he didn't think that his words would stir up such a hornet's nest.

    Lieberman to the rescue

    While many took to social media platforms to vent their anger at the comments, others vowed they would settle the score at polling stations in early March.

    "My entire family will be voting for Avigdor Lieberman's party Yisrael Beitenu as I like his political agenda, which cares for the needs of the Russian-speaking community", said Andrey Goldberg, a resident of Haifa in northern Israel, who immigrated to the country from Russia some eight years ago.

    The predominately secular Russian-speaking community of Israel, which makes up about twenty percent of the total population, holds the Orthodox parties that together with Netanyahu's Likud garnered 55 seats in the last round of elections responsible for the religious coercion in the Jewish state.

    This is expressed not only in that Israel has no public transport on Shabbat, considered holy for Jews, but also in the fact that matters like marriage, burial, and divorce are controlled by the country's main religious institution, the rabbinical court. 

    The practical meaning of this is that many Russian speakers, considered not Jewish enough by the rabbinical court cannot marry in Israel. Nor can they be buried in the same cemeteries as other Jews.

    For many Russian speakers, who feel they are Jewish enough to pay Israel's taxes, serve in the military, and die for the country, this is a red line.

    "Lieberman is probably the only politician who can defend our rights and withstand the pressure and demands of the religious groups", Goldberg added.

    Lieberman, who filled key ministerial positions in the Israeli government, including heading the ministries of foreign affairs and later defence, promised voters he would work towards minimising the influence of the religious parties. This includes making changes to existing legislation banning the opening of grocery stores on Shabbat and voting in favour of a draft law that would make the Orthodox serve in the army, something that they strongly object to. 

    Not Everything is Bright

    Lieberman is also known for a number of scandals surrounding him and for his political inconsistency. 

    Since 1996, when Benjamin Netanyahu was first elected to the premiership, Lieberman worked side-by-side with the Orthodox promoting laws that served them. These included maintaining and even increasing budgets that went to Orthodox communities (at the expense of the country's other needs) and opting for Orthodox (not liberal) rabbis to head Israel's various councils.

    Goldberg dismissed those allegations. "He is a talented politician who has proven himself and has kept his word. So I am not deterred by reports [of him being corrupt or inconsistent]. There is no solid evidence that links him to any wrong-doing".

    Looking for change

    But Ronny Sternbach, a resident of Tel Aviv, who was born in Israel to Russian-speaking immigrants, doubts Lieberman's consistency.

    "Even though he does seem to cater to the Russian-speaking community, I am not going to vote for him. Firstly, he is too radical for my taste and, secondly, he is too unpredictable".

    Right-wing circles close to Netanyahu often accuse Lieberman of "treason", after the former defence minister refused to join the hawkish Netanyahu government in April, dragging the country into another general vote in September.

    Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman
    © East News / AP/FOTOLINK
    Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman

    Now, says Sternbach, if Lieberman suspects that his policy of lashing out at Netanyahu doesn't work, he can backtrack on it, enabling the premier to form a government.

    And this is something Sternbach wants to avoid at all costs. "I am going to vote for former chief of staff Benny Gantz and his Blue and White party, primarily as I want to get rid of Netanyahu and his corruption". 

    The premier is now being investigated in a number of graft probes that include buying positive press and accepting illegal gifts, allegations that Netanyahu denies. Because of his legal battles the premier is projected to lose more seats in the upcoming March elections.

    According Israeli newspaper Maariv, Netanyahu's Likud is set to get 30 seats (in the 120-seat parliament), six seats behind the Blue and White, the country's biggest party.

    Sternbach understands the reason behind their success. "Apart from the desire to change the current government, the Blue and White also offers the separation of religion from state, something that I strongly support, and a solution to Israel's security threats".

    In the south, the Jewish state is facing the threat of Hamas militants who have been challenging the country's security since the early 2000s, in the north it is Hezbollah, the Shiite militia linked to Iran, that causes a major concern.

    Goldberg agreed that national security is the country's top priority. But to solve this issue, he wants Lieberman to take over the defence ministry. However, unlike in 2016, when he first assumed office, he needs to have broader responsibilities.

    "In the past Lieberman had zero influence as Netanyahu was calling the shots. It has to change now. Only then we will be able to resolve the current situation and rebuild our deterrence".

    The views and opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.

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    Avigdor Liberman, Russians, Russia, Israel
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