If Bibi cannot deliver Charedi exemption, his government will simply collapse

Netanyahu’s fragile coalition is once again under threat


JERUSALEM, ISRAEL - NOVEMBER 28: Israeli lawmaker and 'Shas' Party leader Aryeh Deri during a parliament session on November 28, 2022 in Jerusalem, Israel. An alliance led by the party of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won comfortably in the recent parliamentary election, the country's fifth in under four years. (Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images)

June 19, 2024 10:30

Sunday was the calmest day on Israel’s northern border for over six months. Since the end of the week-long truce in Gaza which ended on December 1, there have been rocket and drone attacks every day as Hezbollah continues harassing Israel on the “second front” in the north. This time around there was no truce but after a week of the most intense strikes, in which hundreds of rockets created massive forest fires, threatening homes in Kiryat Shmona and Safed, quiet reigned, possibly due to the Muslim festival of Eid.

Winemaker Gidi Sayada was glad for the lull. It allowed him to complete the installation of fermentation vats in the new building of his Lueria Winery, on the edge of Dalton industrial zone overlooking a valley by the border.

But he was still frustrated. “It’s quiet now but that just shows you that it’s [Hezbollah leader] Hassan Nasrallah who is calling the shots here.” We were sitting on the winery’s new verandah and nothing could have been further from the descriptions of chaos and burning of the previous week. The wine shop, which doubles as a restaurant, was cool and inviting, with a tasting area (sadly it was much too early in the day) and a glass-walled barrel-room.

It’s the part of Israel that looks like Tuscany and would normally be getting ready for the summer tourism influx. Instead, the roads leading to Dalton have signs warning of anti-tank missiles and the only civilians around are, like Sayada, farmers and local business owners who have to remain close by or lose their livelihoods.

Everything in their lives seems arbitrary right now. Not just whether Nasrallah decides to launch rockets or take a day off, but whether they evacuate their families (if they live in the two-kilometer strip by the border) or stay with their children. In many cases it’s just a matter of crossing the road, from an evacuated community to one where everyone has remained. The only certainty is that the grapes growing heavy on the vines will have to be harvested in August.

No one here is relying on the government, which took over eight months to appoint, finally this week, a civil servant to lead a task-force on addressing the challenges facing civilians and communities up north. The government isn’t eager to acknowledge the situation of war up north, though in the frantic days following October 7 they gave the order to evacuate. Benjamin Netanyahu has committed himself to the nebulous notion of “total victory” over Hamas in Gaza – but tellingly he has made no such claims regarding Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The session of the Knesset’s Justice Committee on Tuesday morning which was meant to prepare the “Rabbis Law” for its preliminary vote wasn’t supposed to be a major event. The law, proposed by Shas, is meant to give the Religious Affairs Ministry more powers to appoint local rabbis. At most that’s a few dozen jobs in the next couple of years. But there are those in the Knesset who believe the session was a major milestone for the Netanyahu government.

Some of the most powerful local politicians in Israel showed up. Likud mayors, led by Haim Bibas, mayor of Modi’in and chair of the Local Authorities Federation, were up in arms against the law, which would force them to pay the salaries of rabbis they didn’t appoint. The Bibas group are a rare species in today’s Likud — independent power brokers who can make it very difficult for serving Knesset members to win a viable spot on the party’s candidate list in the next election.

Despite Netanyahu having sent his parliamentary aide to oversee the session, one after another Likud MKs on the committee voiced their reservations on passing such a controversial law in wartime. Without a majority for the coalition, the meeting was adjourned with no vote taken.

The outcome wasn’t surprising, which leads to the question: why did Shas leader Aryeh Deri, the canniest of politicians, push for the law to be passed right now?

Sources in Shas explain that it was a “test balloon” to see if Netanyahu could get his entire party to vote for a controversial law. Just as the Justice Committee was ending, another session of the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee started along the corridor, the first of a series of meetings over the new law to exempt yeshivah students from military service. Last week Netanyahu succeeded in marshalling the entire coalition – with the exception of Defence Minister Yoav Gallant – to vote in favour of “continuity” of a draft of the law tabled in the previous Knesset. Many Likud MKs had misgivings then but accepted Netanyahu’s explanation that it was only a “technical vote”. The real show will be on the second and third readings of the law which will emerge from the committee. If that ever happens. Deri’s conclusion from the aborted session on the “Rabbis Law” is that the exemption law, which is much more crucial for the Charedi parties, is dead on arrival.

High Court orders that the IDF begin drafting yeshiva students and cut off all payments and benefits from yeshivot and students who refuse to enlist are just around the corner. If the coalition can’t stop that from happening, its demise is just a matter of time.

“Deri knows that the controversy over the law will be hugely damaging for the Charedim,” explained one Shasnik.

“If at the end of that, there’s no law anyway, then why stick with a prime minister who can’t deliver? The moment when he and the other Charedi leaders reach the conclusion they may as well end the partnership and see what kind of deal they can get from a new coalition is drawing close.”

June 19, 2024 10:30

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