Israeli Arabs, ultra-Orthodox wheel and deal in the Knesset

The ultra-Orthodox parties helped Arab Knesset members block the muezzin bill, while the Arab Joint List absented itself from the vote on the proposed conscription law.

al-monitor Yahadut HaTorah lawmaker Moshe Gafni (R) attends a Sept. 13, 2017, meeting in the Knesset with Interior Minister Aryeh Deri (2R), the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (L), also from Gafni's party, known as United Torah Judaism. Gafni is among ultra-Orthodox lawmakers who have entered into a deal with the Knesset's Arab members. Photo by REUTERS/Ammar Awad.

Topics covered

nationalism, conscription, idf, israeli arabs, joint list, ultra-orthodox

Jul 3, 2018

It doesn’t happen a lot in the Knesset, but on July 3, the members of the predominantly Arab Joint List lent a helping hand to the right-wing coalition headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Arab Knesset members absented themselves from a vote on the first reading of an amendment to the law concerning conscription of the ultra-Orthodox into the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). The move was part of an understanding that they had reached with the ultra-Orthodox parties.

Ultra-Orthodox Knesset members voted against the amendment — which passed 63-39 — but behind the scenes, the ultra-Orthodox lawmakers support the law and are planning to vote for it when it comes up again, in two more rounds of voting. Over the past few years, the Supreme Court has rejected several versions of the law. The ultra-Orthodox know that considering the limitations imposed by the court, the current version is the best they can hope for for now, so they preferred that their Arab colleagues leave the plenum rather than threaten its chances for approval.

The understanding between the Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox became public June 19 during a meeting of the Knesset’s Finance Committee. Joint List member Ahmad Tibi said to the committee chairman, Moshe Gafni of Yahadut HaTorah, “With regard to the understandings between us, and the understanding you showed to an issue that is near and dear to our hearts, today the law is being brought up before the Constitution Committee.” Tibi was referring to a promise made by Yahadut HaTorah that its legislators would vote against the proposed muezzin law, submitted by Knesset members from HaBayit HaYehudi and the Likud, to limit the volume of the call to prayer in mosques across the country.

Ostensibly, the bill sought to reduce the noise level in public spaces. In practice, it targeted the Arab population. The Association for Citizens’ Rights in Israel said, “Since the problem of noise nuisances is already resolved with the Law to Prevent Public Hazards, it seems that the purpose of this law is different. It is intended to exclude and harm the country’s Muslim population and their religious and national symbols, while increasing the sense of discrimination and inequality.”

Gafni confirmed at the meeting that the understanding had been reached: “We agreed that this law must not be allowed to continue any further. After Knesset member Tibi and I discussed the matter, I reached the conclusion that the law must not be allowed to continue. The proposed law is only intended to upset people and doesn’t actually do anything. There already is a law to prevent noise, which can provide a response to the issue, but the police don’t use the means at their disposal to stop the noise. I don’t think it has any useful purpose. What it will do is that someone in Indonesia will think that Israel wants to stop the muezzins’ call to prayer from the mosques. I spoke with the chairman of the Constitution Committee about it, too. Even if the law is brought up for discussion there, he assured me it will not be put to a vote.”

Knesset member Moti Yogev of HaBayit HaYehudi, one of the people behind the proposed muezzin law, responded by lashing out at Gafni, claiming that he would rather help an enemy than his own people. “The ultra-Orthodox will sell off the Land of Israel, the State of Israel, just to get out of serving in the army,” he said. “From now on, you can go ask Ahmad Tibi to make a minyan [prayer quorum] for you.”

Yogev told Al-Monitor that the cooperation with the Joint List was intended to preserve the ultra-Orthodox exemption from military service. “I can understand the issue that is dearest to them, the ideal of learning the Torah,” said Yogev. “But they can’t make a deal that goes against the very coalition in which they are members. That in itself is very serious.”

Yogev went on to say that the Joint List has some very good representatives who work hard on behalf of the Arab population, but there are also members who collaborate with Israel’s enemies. “The alliance with [Zionist religious] HaBayit HaYehudi is the most natural alliance for the ultra-Orthodox,” said Yogev. “There was no reason for Gafni to seek greener pastures in other peoples’ fields.”

Despite Yogev’s comments, the Arab and ultra-Orthodox sectors have a lot in common. They are both somewhat cut off from mainstream Israeli society, have more conservative lifestyles, are poorer and their towns and settlements are the least developed in the country. Nevertheless, the ultra-Orthodox have been part of most coalition governments, while the Arabs have always sat in the opposition.

Whenever they find it necessary, the representatives of these two sectors look past the hurdles of nationality and religion to cooperate or at least try to do so. Some seven months ago, Gafni tried to convince Joint List members to absent themselves from a vote on the supermarket law proposed by the ultra-Orthodox to make it easier for the government to prevent businesses from opening on the Sabbath. The opposition opposed the law, and negotiations between the ultra-Orthodox and the Arabs continued until the last minute. In the end, they failed.

One reason the negotiations failed was because the Arabs insisted that in exchange, the ultra-Orthodox parties oppose the proposed nationality law, a piece of banner legislation supported by the right-wing flank of the Likud and HaBayit HaYehudi. The bill would strengthen the status of Israel as a Jewish state, although at the expense of democratic principles. Knowing how important the law was to the prime minister, the ultra-Orthodox Knesset members would not agree to the condition.

According to a senior member of Yahadut HaTorah who spoke with Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, the ultra-Orthodox are now ready to accept this condition. He said that the proposed nationality law would be harmful to the ultra-Orthodox, too, since as a nationalist law, it would be potentially damaging to minorities. It is quite possible that what brought about this change in position by the ultra-Orthodox was Netanyahu’s decision to advance the Western Wall compromise, which sets aside space for women and non-Orthodox (progressive) Jews at the sacred site, which the ultra-Orthodox oppose.

Upon leaving the plenum for the vote on ultra-Orthodox conscription, Tibi said, “[Arab Knesset members] will not take part in the competition between the Zionist Camp and Yesh Atid over who hates the ultra-Orthodox more.” He said he appreciates the way the ultra-Orthodox responded to the muezzin bill and other proposals, and that dialogue between the ultra-Orthodox and the Arabs will continue.

A Joint List Knesset member who requested anonymity told Al-Monitor that the Arabs do not want to be involved in arguments pertaining to religious issues that divide Jews. “It’s none of our business,” he said, “just like we don’t want Jews getting involved in Muslim issues.” At the same time, he said it is important for Arabs that the conscription bill would help the ultra-Orthodox limit the number of young people from their sector who serve in the army, since the Arabs regard the IDF as the main tool of the occupation. That same Knesset member went on to claim that the ultra-Orthodox are showing more common sense and moderation than the entire right-wing nationalist coalition.

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