Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Coalition Deadline Looms Large

Time is running out for Netanyahu. The allotted time to create a coalition ends on Motzoei Shabbos unless he receives a 14-day extension from President Shimon Peres. Yet as we go to press, all he has achieved was signing up Tzipi Livni's Hatnuah to his coalition. In conjunction with the 31 members of his Likud Beiteinu party, her six member party provides him with 37 MKs, far short of the 61 MKs required to form a government. There is an increasing possibility that Netanyahu will take the Yesh Atid-Habayit Hayehudi duo on board in order to maintain power and leave the chareidi parties in the lurch. They would likely have a major say in the government and immediately work towards realizing their goals of drafting yeshiva bochurim into the army, liberalizing conversions and installing a Religious Zionist Chief Rabbi, among their many other objectives.



Ever since the elections, Netanyahu has been unable to create an army draft proposal that satisfies both the chareidim and their opponents in the Lapid-Bennett camp.


As a result of the standoff, a senior Likud source recently warned that if Netanyahu is unable to form a government because of the stalemate, he will accede to Lapid’s and Bennet’s demands and form a government with one or both of them without chareidi participation.


“If Netanyahu feels pressed to the wall and in danger of losing the leadership, he won’t think twice and will leave the chareidim outside,” he said.


Netanyahu’s partner, Avigdor Lieberman, expressed similar sentiment in the past few days saying that, “Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi are our natural partners for putting together a government,” and that, “As it was in the elections of 2009 when we [initially] wanted to set up a coalition of Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu, Kadima, and the Labor party, so it should be this time.”


On Sunday evening, danger threatened. Netanyahu, who has had nothing good to say about Yesh Atid since meeting Lapid shortly after the elections, suddenly changed course and invited Lapid to join his coalition. Netanyahu also renewed his efforts to woo Bennet to his camp.


“Netanyahu calls for the formation of a government with a majority from the nationalist camp and invites Yesh Atid to join as well,” a Likud statement stated. “Habayit Hayehudi was the first party that received an offer to join Netanyahu’s government. The main campaign promise Habayit Hayehudi made to its voters was that it would join a Netanyahu-led government and strengthen it from the right. The only thing currently stopping the formation of a government with a majority from the nationalist camp is the refusal of Bayit Yehudi to join the government.”


On Sunday night, Likud-Beiteinu and Habayit Hayehudi negotiators met once again and discussed the 2013 budget and the new enlistment proposal that was agreed upon by Lapid and Bennet. “I believe we will set up a government soon,” Bennett said. “That is possible.”


If Netanyahu ends up taking Lapid and Bennet aboard, chareidi parties may find it difficult, if not impossible, to join the coalition. Netanyahu should keep in mind that the chareidi parties generally go along with his national policies. A government without them would mean a government more vulnerable to the center-left. Shas MK Nissim Ze’ev warned that Netanyahu would be sorry if he forgot his traditional chareidi partners.


“We won’t be miserable if we are not in the coalition,” he said. “The prime minister has a right to decide what he feels is best for him politically, but for the country it’s very wrong. He won’t be able to run the country without the chareidim, and the socioeconomic problems will multiply. The prime minister will pay the price when the threats come from the strange bond of Lapid and Bennett. The Likud will be sorry.”


However, a survey publicized by Israel’s Channel 10 on Sunday morning indicates that 51% of the Israeli public would prefer a chareidi free coalition. Rav Boruch Mordechai Ezrachi of Yeshivas Ateres Yisroel said during the yeshiva’s Purim celebration that, “Bederech hateva, naturally speaking, there is absolutely no solution for the shemad decree of yeshiva enlistment.”


Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah of America issued a special appeal to the Israeli government last week saying:


“We are deeply dismayed by the efforts in Eretz Yisroel to draft bnei yeshiva and remove them from the beis medrash, the wellspring of Torah to which they dedicate their days and nights. The perseverance and security of Hashem’s people are rooted in its dedication to Torah study… We appeal to the members of the government in Israel not to take any steps that will in any way negatively affect the bnei yeshiva and their study of Torah. For Torah study is ‘our life and the length of our days,’ which will ‘lead us upright forever.’”




Netanyahu’s desperation was obvious last Tuesday when Tzipi Livni signed on as his first coalition partner. The deal was a mix of oil and water; Livni, who headed the opposition during much of Netanyahu’s last tenure as Prime Minister, attacked his foreign and economic policies at almost every opportunity. During the past elections she tried unsuccessfully to create a united left-centrist bloc as an alternative to Netanyahu’s coalition. During elections, Netanyahu insisted that he would not evacuate West Bank communities, while Livni and her colleagues strongly supported evacuating communities as part of a peace deal. Strangest of all, MK Amir Peretz, third on the Hatnuah list, officially left the Labor party and joined Hatnuah because of Livni’s assurances that she would never join a Netanyahu government. Many regard the Netanyahu-Livni deal as the height of political cynicism.


Netanyahu tried to explain that the move was all part of his vision for a broad government.


“The State of Israel needs a broad national unity government and our agreement is the first step in this direction,” he said. “The country is facing enormous challenges, some of which are unprecedented. The threats from Iran, Syria and Hezbollah do not stop for a moment. To address these threats, we need a broad and stable government that unites the people. We must make every effort to advance a responsible peace process with the Palestinians.”


However, in addition to taking Livni aboard, he also promised to appoint Livni as justice minister and grant her authority to conduct peace negotiations on Netanyahu’s behalf. That was born of desperation.


Rival parties criticized the partnership between the two former enemies. Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi party claimed that taking on Livni, a leader of the Gaza Strip disengagement process, was a betrayal of Netanyahu’s nationalistic election promises. To this Likud-Beiteinu responded that according to the Likud-Hatnuah agreement, “the prime minister is the person who will lead the ministerial team that will manage the diplomatic process.”


Bennet was not pacified.


“Are we going to let a person who has already declared she would divide Jerusalem and give up Ariel run the peace process?” he challenged.


Hatnuah denied this allegation, stating that, “Livni has never made concessions on Ariel or discussed the division of Jerusalem during negotiations; rather, she defended Israel’s national interests.”


However, former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wrote in her memoir that in the negotiations she conducted under former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Olmert offered the Palestinians 94% of Yehuda and Shomron as well as shared control over Jerusalem. The Arabs turned down the offer.


Bennett disapproved to the point of insisting that he will only enter Netanyahu’s government if Livni is stripped of her title as next justice minister and of her role as chief negotiator in the Palestinian peace process. He also threatened, for the first time, to join the opposition if things don’t work out. The Maariv paper reported that Bennett has already held his first campaign meeting to plan for the possibility of a second round of elections. Netanyahu, for his part, instructed his negotiating team to take necessary measures to bring Habayit Hayehudi within the fold.


Meanwhile, on Sunday night, Bennett admitted to the existence of the Lapid-Bennet pact for the first time and tried to explain why it is good for national-religious Zionism.


“Were it not for this coordination,” he wrote, “there would be a government of Livni, Kadima, Shas, Yesh Atid and Likud, without religious Zionism and without Habayit Hayehudi. This government would go full speed ahead with Livni’s policies (giving up Jerusalem, giving up the city of Ariel, negotiating with the PLO…). This is a fact. This coordination has changed the political map and forced the Likud to bring in Habayit Hayehudi. Because of this coordination, the government will be focused on social, economic and domestic issues, and not just diplomatic ones.”


But he admitted that, “Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi have points in common, as well as points of dispute.”




Taking Livni on board has not made things much better for Netanyahu. He has no clear way to form a government. Even together with the chareidi parties and Kadima, his coalition would only have 57 mandates (Likud-Beiteinu 31, Shas 11, UTJ 7, Hatnuah 6, Kadima 2). He needs one more party – Habayit Hayehudi, Yesh Atid, or Labor – to form a new government.


The problem with the first two parties is that Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid has stated that in future elections he would like to emerge as prime minister, causing Netanyahu to fear that relying on the Lapid-Bennet duo might give him a government for only a couple of months, until they feel ready to topple him.


As for the Labor party, Labor head Shelly Yachimovich still insists that her aim is to head the opposition, despite recent efforts of Aryeh Deri to induce her to change her mind. She also took the opportunity to criticize the Lapid-Bennet obsession with chareidi enlistment, pointing out that, “We have reached the absurd situation that to the Lapid-Bennett pact, all of Israel’s problems – the huge gaps between rich and poor, the collapse of the middle class, peace and security – will be solved if only more chareidim would be recruited into the army.”


The chareidi parties are also not a bird in the hand. Two weeks ago, Netanyahu introduced a new enlistment proposal less drastic than Lapid’s enlistment plans, but stricter than what the yeshiva world would accept. Drawn up by head of the National Economic Council, Prof. Eugene Kandel, it imposes no quotas of how many chareidim must enlist, and relies instead on the carrot and stick approach. Financial incentives and threats built into the plan are designed to drastically increase enlistment through indirect means. It also proposes checking the attendance of bnei Torah at their learning institutions by means of biometric identity cards. With this plan, the proposal states, “A goal has been set that from 2014-2019 by stages, a certain percentage (the amount still not decided) will leave yeshivah/kollel.


So far, the new proposal hasn’t helped as chareidim regard it too strict and their political opponents regard it too lenient.


Last week Rav Aharon Leib Steinman and Rav Shmuel Auerbach wrote letters declaring that the yeshiva world will never agree to any compromises. On Friday the Moetzes Chachmei Hatorah of Agudas Yisrael issued an announcement calling on yeshiva students not to enlist under any circumstances:


“We once again express our daas Torah to the talmidim of the holy yeshivos and avrechei kollelim for whom Torah is their livelihood… not to enlist under any circumstances,” the Moetzes stated. “Any attempts to alter your legal status will fail. Stand at your posts even if they try to take you by force and throw you into prison and even if they try to extort your rights and decree poverty and need upon you. Do not fear and do not be afraid; Hashem will be with you when you sanctify His name with love. As the Gemara (Berachos 61) says, ‘Happy are you that you were arrested because of words of Torah.’”


This way of thinking was demonstrated last Thursday when coalition teams of Likud-Beiteinu and UTJ met for the first time in two weeks. MK Yaakov Litzman dramatically pulled a 200 shekel banknote from his pocket and said he had an “equal burden” proposal of his own in the form of a statement printed on the banknote, which Israeli President Zalman Shazar said in 1949:


“In the darkness of her exile and in all her communities, [the Jewish nation] knew to impose on every community to hire melamdei tinokos at the expense of all its residents, whether wealthy or poor, parents to many children or childless, married or unmarried, all united had to bear the burden of Torah study.”


The meeting was a failure.


“With us, the Ashkenazi chareidim, they hadn’t spoken for two weeks,” Litzman said afterwards. “All they had to offer us was a glass of water.”


Shas leaders also rejected the Kandel proposal in its present form, saying it wasn’t even worth discussing its terms with the Moetzes Chachmei Hatorah of Rav Ovadiah Yosef until it was adjusted to their way of thinking.


Secular parties rejected the Kandel agreement as well.


“Those who say that we are going to ultimately capitulate just don’t know us,” Lapid said. “When it comes to the equal sharing of the burden and the conscription of chareidim, we are not going to move even one inch from our current position.”


Unfortunately, he can afford to be obstinate. According to a Knesset Channel poll published last Thursday, a repeat election would give Lapid 30 seats (11 more than they have now), Habayit Hayehudi would rise from 12 to 15, Likud-Beiteinu would be down by 9 and drop to 22, while Labor and Shas would drop to 13 and 9 seats. Even a milder Maariv poll boded ill for Netanyahu, predicting that Likud-Beiteinu would drop by three mandates to 28, Lapid would rise to 24 and Bennet to 13, while Labor would drop from 15 to 11.


At a coalition meeting last Friday, Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi also rejected the Kandel plan as it stands. However, Lapid conceded to Habayit Hayehudi’s request to tone down his demands. The new Bennett-Lapid proposal raises the annual number of draft exemptions for chareidim from 400 to 1,000 – 2,000, delays the draft age from 18 to 21, and completely exempts chareidi females.


Most members of Hatnuah are expected to oppose the Kandel proposal as well, and Kadima chairman Shaul Mofaz has also said he will not join Netanyahu’s coalition on its basis. Indeed, last week, Lapid and Bennet tried to bring Shaul Mofaz into their pact. The three leaders discussed how to form a unified front regarding the subject of chareidi army service.




As mentioned earlier, there is now danger that Netanyahu will put his money on the Likud-Bennett duo and leave the chareidim in the lurch. On Tuesday, after a number of intensive talks between Likud and Habayit Hayehudi, “significant progress” was announced.


A senior Habayit Hayehudi official said that, “We can settle for an enlistment proposal acceptable to Habayit Hayehudi today or tomorrow. Things are progressing. I hope that by the end of the week, at the latest, the whole enlistment issue will be behind us.” He added that efforts were being made to accommodate the chareidim, saying that, “We in Habayit Hayehudi have never disqualified any party. Any proposal that results will be something the chareidim can live with peaceably.”


A senior source of the chareidi UTJ party said the claim that chareidim would be satisfied was untrue.


“This approach seems to be a trick of theirs,” he said. “They know from the start that we will not agree to such a proposal. But Netanyahu will have an excuse why he deserted his natural partner, saying he had no choice as he had to set up a government. They’ll have an excuse why they betrayed the chareidim.


Moshe Gafni warned during a Knesset speech on Tuesday that keeping the chareidim out the government a few years ago resulted in Israel’s disengagement from Gaza.


“In 2003 when Ariel Sharon was Prime Minister, he decided to set up a government without chareidim,” he said. “He established a government with the [anti-religious] Shinui party headed by the late minister Tommy Lapid, and added to it the National-Religious party, the Ichud Hale’umi, and Yisrael Beiteinu. The chareidim were outside… This government decided upon the disengagement.”


The good news is that cracks have formed in Bennet’s commitment to stick with Lapid through thick and thin.


MK Uri Ariel, head of Habayit Hayehudi’s negotiating team, said last week that “it is quite possible that when all is said and done Habayit Hayehudi would join the government even without Lapid; but that is contingent on having serious negotiations that deal with the actual substance of the basic guidelines, unlike what has been taking place so far.”


West Bank leaders have criticized Bennett’s tactics, saying that, “There is no logic in going with Lapid under any circumstances. Bennett is trying to turn Netanyahu into his puppet. He wants to crush the Likud. This does not serve nationalist goals.”


There is still hope.


“We very much hope that by the end of the day we’ll be inside,” said a UTJ representative. “When all is said and done, Netanyahu knows that we are his natural, reliable partners and for the sake of government stability it is worth having us in the coalition.”



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