But most of the rabbis of the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, Jews initially saw the secular Zionist movement as heretical. Over decades, their attitude became more ambivalent, and most of the rabbis supported Haredi representatives entering the Knesset and government to safeguard their community’s interests. The Haredi parties didn’t pick sides. They sat in Likud and Labor coalitions, and in opposition, depending on what was on offer. To this day, they insist they are neither right nor left wing. Yet as the Israeli left was more stridently secular, while many on the right were traditional or observant, the ultra-Orthodox slowly drifted toward the Likud camp. Still, until a decade ago, they preserved their independent status as potential kingmakers, keeping options open on both sides.
One of Netanyahu’s greatest political achievements has been cementing the alliance between Likud and these religious parties. Netanyahu does not keep any of the commandments of the Torah. His ideology is secular Jewish nationalism, and those who know him well, many of whom I interviewed for a biography of Bibi, insist he is an atheist, though he’s never admitted it publicly. But unlike other secular politicians, he has never shown any interest in separating religion from state or curbing the rabbinical hegemony on certain sections of Israeli life, such as family law. Netanyahu focuses solely on geopolitics, security, and macroeconomics, partly for political expediency. He is happy to give the ultra-Orthodox leadership full autonomy to run their lives in any way they see fit.
Netanyahu is prepared to give the ultra-Orthodox blanket exemptions from national service and even allow them to hold sway over matters that affect other Israelis, such as control of marriage and divorce and the definition of Jewish identity, crucial to a state that grants automatic citizenship to anyone who can prove to be Jewish. In return, he expects their political support. Under Netanyahu, the Haredi politicians have foresworn their kingmaker status. Because of their higher birth rates compared with those of the general population, the size of their political representation is gradually growing, and the built-in Knesset majority of a right-wing-religious bloc is all but assured.
That arrangement is now being challenged by Lieberman. Born in Kishinev, in the former Soviet Union (today Chisinau, the capital of Moldova), and still speaking with a heavy Russian accent, Lieberman also has the perfect constituency on which to base such a strategy—the large community of Israelis who immigrated from the former Soviet Union. “They are the one exception to my main polling law of Israelis: that the more right-wing you are, the more religious you are as well,” Dahlia Scheindlin, a pollster and political strategist, told me.