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Ultra-Orthodox parties stick with Netanyahu in opposition

The Bennett-Lapid government's commitment to advancing progressive Judaism projects is pushing the ultra-Orthodox into an even tighter alliance with the former prime minister.
Ultra orthodox

The ultra-Orthodox parties were furious, and they were disgusted. They reacted with derision to a statement by Foreign Minister and Alternative Prime Minister Yair Lapid on Nov. 8 that, “If any of the ultra-Orthodox parties is willing to accept the guiding principles of the current government, I will pressure Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman to allow them to join the coalition.”

It might seem like a gesture of goodwill, after they were exiled to the opposition benches with former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In fact, the ultra-Orthodox believe they are being played by Lapid and his ally, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.

However, the one person in government wielding the power in this issue is, in fact, Liberman. He embraced the fight against ultra-Orthodox politicians as an integral part of his party’s agenda, and he has no plans to change his mind. 

One of Liberman’s conditions for joining the coalition was that the ultra-Orthodox be kept out. The other members of the coalition agreed. Now, even after he succeeded in passing the budget, he insists that this condition be kept. In interviews over the weekend, Liberman lauded his own personal victory in passing the 2021-2022 budget. When asked what will happen to the ultra-Orthodox parties now, he brought up the clause in the coalition. “That’s one promise I don’t intend to break,” he continued.

It is more than just political rhetoric, too. Liberman is still taking steps to weaken the power of the ultra-Orthodox and their control over state religious institutions. 

At a meeting of his Yisrael Beitenu faction on Nov. 8, Liberman announced that next month, the party would take up measures to allow private conversions by municipal rabbis and to restore the Western Wall compromise — a prayer space for progressive Judaism movements. This latter agreement, which was put on hold in 2017, would divide the Western Wall into a northern section, which would follow Orthodox practice, and a southern section, in which men and women would pray together. Furthermore, regulations for other sacred sites would be updated to include pluralism and gender equality, for the first time ever, without the traditional Orthodox barrier separating men and women worshippers.

All of these changes are red lines for the ultra-Orthodox. To make matters worse, when Lapid and other coalition partners such as Meretz and the Labor Party agree with these measures, the inevitable reaction from the ultra-Orthodox is to feel increasingly isolated.

In his budget, which was approved on Friday, Liberman included measures intended to hurt the ultra-Orthodox directly. Chief among these was increased taxes on disposable cutlery, plates, and other utensils, which this community [often with many children per family] uses frequently. The decision to cut subsidies to daycare centers was another blow to ultra-Orthodox women, who are the main wage-earners of large families. 

After years in which the ultra-Orthodox thrived politically, thanks to their solid alliance with Netanyahu, they are having a hard time dealing with these harsh decrees, especially now that they are relegated to the opposition benches. However, tthey have no plans to abandon their alliance with Netanyahu. If anything, they are digging in.

What matters most to the ultra-Orthodox community is not bowing to what they see as religious persecution. Many of them identify with a statement by Knesset Member Moshe Gafni, head of the Yahadut HaTorah party: “The goal of this government is to change the very nature of the State of Israel as a Jewish state.”

This has wall-to-wall support from the community’s rabbinic leadership too. Earlier this week, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi and Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, Rabbi Shlomo Moshe Amar, launched a scathing attack against the Bennett-Lapid government's religious reforms: “People are trampling on religion and taking bread out of the mouths of babes learning Torah.”

Did the ultra-Orthodox go too far with their alliance with Netanyahu? After all, his fall from power brought them down too. But the answer can be found in the polls.

The popular ultra-Orthodox website Kikar Shabbat conducted a comprehensive survey of the community after the budget was passed. Its findings were unequivocal: The ultra-Orthodox community is vehemently opposed to the idea of joining the Bennett-Lapid government. In fact, an absolute majority of the community believes that the current government is hurting the ultra-Orthodox. The poll also found that the vast majority believes that the ultra-Orthodox parties were right to maintain their allegiance to Netanyahu. 

This is very encouraging for Netanyahu. It reinforces his alliance with the ultra-Orthodox, which served both sides for years. If he is to maintain his strength in the opposition, Netanyahu is in desperate need of this partnership. The ultra-Orthodox parties control 16 seats in the Knesset, and they are a fairly homogeneous group.

It is not good news for the coalition. Rightwing ministers like Gideon Saar, Ze’ev Elkin, and Ayelet Shaked are still trying to keep an open channel of communication with the ultra-Orthodox. They believe that this can weaken the Netanyahu-led opposition and may even lead to the expansion of the coalition — or perhaps even a new coalition entirely. This, in turn, would enable them to return to their natural home in the rightwing bloc. This approach is based on the idea that the opposition would fall apart once the budget is passed, and that Netanyahu would either give up and retire or be forced out.

But all indications now are that this will not happen. Netanyahu is clinging to his seat as leader of the opposition. His popularity is increasing, and the ultra-Orthodox are sticking with him, declaring that they will work with him to bring down the “wicked” government.

Should this persist, the rightwing parties in the coalition will feel increasingly under siege by the parties on the left and the Arab party. This will intensify as the rotation approaches and Lapid is nearer to becoming the next prime minister. Once that happens, the coalition’s rightwing parties will never be able to return to the rightwing bloc. After all, they will be blamed for bringing the leader of the left to the office of prime minister.

These dramatic shifts in the Israeli political spectrum have far-reaching, if not historic, social implications. The absolute majority of the ultra-Orthodox, and even people on the right considered close to religion and tradition, feel alienated from the current government. As such, they will continue to support the opposition. Should this persist, the current government's task to heal the rifts in the nation will be just about impossible.

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