Will Charedi leaders really dare to ditch their comfy coalition?

After 18 months of sitting in opposition, they have received unprecedented positions of power in the new government and levels of public funding from the state budget


Ultra orthodox students from the Ponovitz Yeshiva listen to a Torah lesson at the Ponovitz Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, September 11, 2016. Photo by Flash90

October 05, 2023 15:34

Two weeks ago, a routine meeting of the coalition leaders was scheduled to take place in the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem.

But as the party bosses in Benjamin Netanyahu’s government arrived, they were told that the meeting wasn’t taking place.

Last-minute cancellations are commonplace in the Netanyahu coalition but Agudath Yisrael’s Housing Minister Yitzhak Goldknopf was incensed. He left a short note to the cabinet secretary: “Yossi Fuchs! In accordance with your promise.

"On 15.10.23 a military draft law will be put on the Knesset/government table. You must fulfill what has crossed your lips (I also have your handwriting). Yitzhak Goldknopf”.

There was no mistaking the ultimatum in Goldknopf’s note. Not only had he quoted a stern passage from the Torah on the importance of fulfilling vows, he also made sure to photograph the note, which was promptly leaked.

He wasn’t just angry at the meeting being cancelled without notice. Fuchs had promised to furnish the leaders of the Charedi parties with the draft of the draft law immediately after Rosh Hashanah and it was already a week late.

Another week has passed and they are still waiting for the document.

As the October 15 deadline, the start of the Knesset’s winter session, draws close, there are different assessments in the political establishment as to the severity of the looming crisis.

In Likud and around Netanyahu the tone is confident.

Israel has waited 75 years to solve the issue of the yeshivah students, they say, and the Charedi politicians are reasonable and pragmatic enough to understand that at this increasingly fraught juncture it isn’t the moment to exacerbate matters and give the protest movement.

This is already focusing largely on the discrepancy between the sacrifice made by the non-Charedi parts of society, who pay more taxes and serve in the army, a major boost in bringing this unpopular law to a vote.

As it is, there may not even be enough votes in the coalition, with a growing number of Likud MKs expressing their disquiet.

Surely the Charedim won’t leave this government, goes the reasoning in Likud. After 18 months of sitting in opposition they have received unprecedented positions of power in the new government and levels of public funding from the state budget. How could they jeopardise that?

That depends largely on which Charedim you’re speaking to.

From Shas there are reassuring noises. A compromise can be found. There’s no rush. But in Shas, there’s only one real boss: party leader Arye Deri. In the decade since Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s death, Deri has had complete control of party affairs.

No senior Mizrahi rabbi has emerged with anything resembling Rabbi Yosef’s stature, and the rabbis of the Council of Torah Sages serve as Deri’s rubber-stamp. Matters in Ashkenazi United Torah Judaism (of which Agudath Yisrael is part) are very different.

The UTJ MKs answer to their rabbis. Most of them answer each to a different rabbi. And there’s no assurance those rabbis can reach a joint policy, which means that they will ultimately gather around the most hardline position.

Currently, that is the one held by Goldknopf’s rabbi, the Gerer Rebbe Yaakov Alter, that if the coalition cannot fulfill its original promise from the nearly year-old coalition agreement to pass the law, there is no point in remaining in this government.

Netanyahu is disregarding this position at his peril. Rabbi Alter isn’t known for compromising.

The disagreement isn’t only over the timing of the legislation. The wording is contentious too.

UTJ favours a blanket exemption from enlistment for anyone who chooses to study Torah.

Since this is likely to be rejected by the Supreme Court as being “unequal” and therefore unconstitutional, they have also demanded an “override clause” which would allow the Knesset to pass the law despite the court’s objection.

But Netanyahu has promised in recent interviews that his government is no longer planning an override clause.

Defence Minister Yoav Gallant has proposed to overcome the equality issue by passing another law which would dramatically increase the pay of IDF conscripts (who currently receive barely pocket money) but the Treasury’s cupboard is bare after the pillage of the coalition special-interests funding, and tax revenues this year have been much lower than predicted.

Shas have proposed a different law, which would set quotas for the number of yeshivah students who would join the IDF, but the Ashkenazi rabbis are adamantly opposed to any quotas.

In a surprise move from the opposition, National Unity party leader Benny Gantz has started in recent days to meet various Charedi rabbis and present them with his proposal.

The Gantz law would be much more gradual, explains a National Unity MK. “It would take ten years, so the yeshivahs have time to adapt and establish new types of national service which would allow those who will never join the army an alternative, such as the Ichud Hatzala emergency service.”

But why would the Charedim agree to an opposition proposal and why would an opposition party help out the coalition?

“The Charedim realise they’re stuck and if anything, having a viable opposition proposal on the table makes things more difficult for the coalition.”

Saudis going nuclear:

The question of whether yeshivah students should be drafted to the IDF like other Israeli men goes back 75 years to Israel’s foundation and David Ben-Gurion’s decision to exempt 200 of them.

Another foundational issue for Israel which goes back almost as long is the concern over Arab nations obtaining weapons of mass destruction.

Ben-Gurion dealt with it from the late 1950s onwards when the news of German scientists, wanted Nazi war criminals, working for Arab countries led to a major clandestine operation against them. The threat has never gone away.

Menachem Begin, Ben-Gurion’s ideological nemesis, established what would become known as the “Begin Doctrine” when in 1981 he dispatched F-16 fighter-bombers to bomb Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor in Iraq.

The Begin Doctrine means that Israel will use any means necessary to prevent another country in the region from acquiring nuclear capabilities.

In 2007 Ehud Olmert followed in Begin’s footsteps when he gave the orders for an airborne strike that destroyed Bashar Assad’s secret reactor which was being constructed in northern Syria.

Benjamin Netanyahu, despite long years of tough talk against Iran’s nuclear programme, has failed to prevent it from becoming a nuclear-threshold state.

Now he is on the verge of allowing another Arab nation to acquire nuclear capabilities as part of the US-Saudi-Israel deal under which the Saudis are expected to receive American backing for a uranium-enrichment programe on their soil.

“Netanyahu is the only prime minister in Israeli history who would have agreed to a Saudi nuclear programme,” says a very senior Israeli figure with close knowledge of the nuclear issue.

“As much as Israel desires diplomatic relations with the Saudis, no other prime minister would have ever agreed to such a condition.

“But Netanyahu is desperate for a deal with the Saudis, which he believes will save his political career and legacy. Of course, if he was now the leader of the opposition, he would be opposing the Saudi deal with all his might.

"Whatever assurances there will be in the agreement, it won’t prevent the Saudis keeping these capabilities if 20 years down the road there’s an Islamist revolution there.”

So far, there’s been very little open opposition within Israel to that aspect of the deal. The only person to have publicly warned against the nuclear part of the agreement is leader of the opposition and former prime minister Yair Lapid.

Senior security figures, both those currently serving and retired, are alarmed but have yet to go public, largely because the actual details are still unclear.

But some are already warning that if indeed Netanyahu is prepared to agree to a Saudi enrichment programme, the political controversies of the past nine months will seem tame compared to what can be expected.

October 05, 2023 15:34

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive