Two weeks after the elections, and one month to go until a government must legally be formed, the Israeli political scene is narrowing down to a battle royale, a holy war if you will, over the issue of the equal sharing of the burden in Israeli society [read: the lack of it].
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, tasked to form the next coalition, has a real conundrum on his hands: he wants to form a wide ruling coalition, but that pesky issue of army service for the ultra-Orthodox is threatening to force him to to choose between his natural partners – the haredi Shas and UTJ parties, and his other natural partners – the national religious Zionists of Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi. Netanyahu probably never thought he’d be in this situation.
Habayit Hayehudi has been energised by the emergence of Bennett, a former IDF elite commando [who still serves in the reserves] who has made equalising the national burden one of his party’s main platforms. Not only is Habayit Hayehudi well represented in the Knesset with 12 MKs, they are even backing a national religious Zionist candidate for the position of chief rabbi of Israel – the holy of holies of the ultra-Orthodox religious monopoly in Israel. Things got so heated during the election campaign in January that Shas, fearing some of its own voters were being drawn into Bennett’s forceful gravitational pull, threw the kitchen sink at the knitted kippas. Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef called them “Gentiles and Heretics.” The Ashkenazi rabbis called them Reform Jews – the ultimate insult one can throw at someone in the haredi world. It’s worse than calling someone a Goy.
But then came the elections. UTJ got 7 mandates, increasing its strength by just one Knesset seat. Shas failed to increase its size [mostly due to rivals like Amsalem and Bennett] and stayed at 11.
Habayit Hayehudi got 12 [up from single digits under the old leadership of Zevulun Orlev]. Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, with its secularist agenda, won big with 19. The haredis’ worst nightmare was materialising right in front of their eyes: A government without the haredim. A government that wouldn’t need the combined 19 seats of the haredi parties. A government who could thus change the status quo and force the haredi sector of Israeli society to serve in the army, serve in national service, and enter the workforce.
Then things got even worse: Reports began surfacing that Bennett and Lapid had made a deal that one wouldn’t enter the government without the other, and that both parties would work to change the status quo.
The Haredim see the uninterrupted continuation of Torah study and draft exemption as an existential issue. There is only black and white here, not 50 shades of grey, not even 2 shades of gray. The entire power structure of the haredi political system is based on the complete control that the rabbis have over their flock. Once young men start serving in the army, national service, or, God forbid, work for a living – they may start getting their own ideas. It doesn’t matter that both Bennett and Lapid were proposing gradual, moderated and meaningful plans to equalise the national burden. There is no real compromise that the haredim can agree to. For the haredi rabbis [not necessarily their flock] the prospect of change itself is the end of the world. Their entire system, all of their energies, are focused on keeping things as they were in the ghettos of eastern Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. Bennett’s party, which includes a slew of religious Zionist rabbis, was threatening to upend the order of the world, no less.
This was a bridge too far. The politicians were threatening to legislate, actually legislate. [In Israel, the religious parties are represented in the Knesset by politicians but the real power lies with the rabbis - unelected and unaccountable rabbis - who make the actual decisions].
So the rabbis went to war.
They did what they haven’t done in over a generation: call a meeting with the national religious rabbis [at the homes of the haredi rabbis, of course.]
Eminent Zionist Rabbis Chaim Druckman, Yaakov Ariel and Shmuel Eliyahu – who were only two weeks ago called “gentiles and heretics” – were called in and told to rein in Bennett. They were warned not to support the “uprooting of the Torah world now” because, in the words of Shas’ Beit Shemesh Mayor, Rabbi Moshe Aboutboul, “Obama, in his second term doesn’t care about anything and he’s going to force Netanyahu to uproot settlements. So when that happens don’t expect us to support you in the Knesset.” That’s a serious threat, but as a veteran observer of Israeli politics told me, the haredi parties were nowhere to be seen when the vote for the Gaza Disengagement came up. So now could be a good opportunity for the national religious settler community to get its payback on the haredim.
Aboutboul says the rabbis were told: “If we are not in the coalition don’t come crying to us when you need political support against a prime minister who will remove settlements. We saw Sharon do it. He who was the father of the settlements…”
But Aboutboul is seen by many in Beit Shemesh as the rabbi of the haredim, who looks out for their interests only – against the interests of the modern Orthodox, who feel that they are being squeezed out, and whose daughters are spat on on their way to school. His city has been a microcosm of the holy war between the modern Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox over issues of control over the public sphere, the ‘elimination’ of women from public spaces, so-called modesty patrols, increasingly stringent Kashrut supervision, and even real-estate battles over the nature and makeup of new neighbourhoods. In fact, Josephus himself could write a whole book about what’s going on in Beit Shemesh these days.
Aboutboul is not alone.
Two weeks after the elections, Rabbis Ovadia sent his minion Eli Yishai to do what Yishai does best, explain what the Gaon [genius] really meant [read: clean up Ovadia's mess]. Yishai was sent to talk to the national religious rabbis over the head of Naftali Bennett. Yishai told the rabbis that Bennett cannot be in the position of deciding, alone, to change the status quo. The haredis’ strategy is to open a rift between Bennett and his rabbis, between Habayit Hayehudi’s Knesset representatives and their spiritual representatives. But I’m not sure this is going to work. Habayit Hayehudi MKs, while closely associated with certain rabbis, are not the rabbis’ puppets in the Knesset, as Shas and UTJ’s MKs are. Shas MKs and ministers never do anything in the Knesset or in the government without consulting and getting approval from The Council of Torah Sages – that unelected body of Octogenarians who answer only to a higher power. In what would be impossible in the haredi parties, activists and MKs in Habayit Hayehudi have told their own movement’s rabbis to stay out of the political negotiations over the haredi draft!
But the pressure on the Zionist rabbis seems to be paying off at least partially. One rabbi has told Bennett “you are not Lapid” – i.e. take your foot off the gas on this whole equality thing.
The Ashkenzi ultra-Orthodox got into the act too.
UTJ Rabbi MK Uri Maklev was sent onto the radios to warn that “The Reformim [of Habayit Hayehudi and Tzohar [national religious rabbis] have managed to get into the Knesset. They are the real problem because the secular MKs don’t know anything about Torah and they don’t pretend to, but many of these new religious MKs think they know about the Torah and they have an opinion about everything. Our job is to guard against them. Our very existence is the continuation of Torah study.”
So now Netanyahu, it seems, is faced with a difficult choice. He will have to choose between his natural partners: on the one hand the national religious Zionists he has always been close to, and on the other hand, the ultra-Orthodox political parties, on whom he has always relied on to bolster his coalitions.
Netanyahu has several national religious Zionists in his close circle [his Bureau Chief, his Chief of Policy Planning, his National Security Advisor ]- as well as some other close associates.
The Prime Minister is also reportedly deciding between two religious Zionists candidates to fill the position of Cabinet Secretary to replace the outgoing Zvi Hauser. The two contenders are Perach Lerner [modern Orthodox] and Shlomo Filber, former Secretary-General of the Yesha Council.
Netanyahu has historically always chosen to stick with his ‘natural partners’ – the loyal and predictable ultra-Orthodox parties. He chose them over Kadima’s Mofaz in May 2011, who wanted to legislate a serious equal sharing of the burden law – and dumped Mofaz. The haredim chose Netanyahu over Livni when she wanted to form a government after “winning” the most seats in the 2009 Knesset elections.
In the last government, Netanyahu kept the peace between his national religious and haredi partners.
But now, Habayit Hayehudi have put together a team to support the nomination of Rabbi David Stav to the position of Chief Rabbi of Israel. This means that the “Gentiles and Heretics” of the national religious stream have their sights on the haredi monopoly over the burial societies, the rabbinic courts, religious councils, the conversion authority, and every other religious institution that the ultra-Orthodox rule over. This would be the end of the world for the haredim, and so they’re fighting tooth and nail. Stav wants to moderate the system, take power away from the haredi monopoly, make Judaism a little bit more inclusive. Bennett is threatening to team up with Lapid to force Netanyahu to change the status quo.
Enough is enough. The peace is over. This means war.
Netanyahu might seek to avoid this Solomonic quandary and do something else entirely: dump Lapid and form a coalition with Bennett and the haredim.
- Haredim Who Want To Study Instead Of Serve In The Military Should Be Able To Do So, Zionist Orthodox Pol Says (failedmessiah.typepad.com)
- Ashkenazi And Sefardi Haredim To Form United Negotiating Bloc (failedmessiah.typepad.com)
- 80% Of Jewish Israelis Want Haredim Out Of Government (failedmessiah.typepad.com)