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Draft at Center of Coalition Talks

Last week, things looked bleak for Israel’s chareidi world. Yair Lapid was demanding that Binyomin Netanyahu accept his draconian conscription plan for yeshiva students and, to make things worse, he was reportedly forming a common bloc with Naftoli Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi party. Since then, there has been a turnaround.

United Meeting of the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah

Agudas Yisroel and Degel Hatorah each have a separate Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah.

In the face of the government’s insistence on drafting yeshiva students and Lapid’s draconian draft plan, the two councils met together in Bnei Brak last Thursday evening. Both councils recently took on many new members due to the passing of a number of gedolim over the past few years.

The evening began with a meeting of the Agudas Yisroel Moetzes attended by the admorim of Ger, Erloi, Belz, Sanz, Slonim, Modzitz, Vizhnitz, Boston, Biala, Sadigur and Boyan.Later, the Agudas Yisroel Moetzes was joined by members of the Moetzes of Degel Hatorah, including Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman, Rav Shmuel Auerbach, Rav Nissim Karelitz, Rav Meir Tzvi Bergman, Rav Gershon Edelstein, Rav Yitzchok Sheiner, Rav Boruch Dov Povarsky, Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein, Rav Aryeh Finkel, Rav Moshe Yehuda Schlesinger, Rav Yehuda Adas, Rav Moshe Hillel Hirsh and Rav Dovid Cohen.

 

The joint meeting began with the recitation of Tehillim for a refuah shleimah of Rav Boruch Mordechia Ezrachi, a member of the Degel Moetzes, who fell ill a few hours before the meeting and lost consciousness on his way to the hospital. His heart stopped beating in the hospital and he had to be revived. He has since begun to recover.

 

Rav Shteinman delivered the keynote speech. He was unable to hold back his tears as he described the danger faced not only by the yeshiva world, but by the entire Klal Yisroel.

 

“Rav Saadya Gaon writes that our nation is only a nation through its Torah,” he began. “The whole survival of Klal Yisroel is only through Torah, and in every generation it has been necessary to fight for this in order to survive. Boruch Hashem, in the past generation, Torah students have increased and great talmidei chachomim are flourishing, many of them writing quality seforim of halacha or drashos. We hope that Hashem will help us continue like this until the geulah, but until then, we will need to invest great efforts, for the situation is by no means simple…

 

“Without Torah, our nation ceases to exist. It is our life. Its absence is inconceivable. Without Torah, we will be uprooted branch and root. Woe to us! What will happen to us if this comes about? Our lives depend on all of Klal Yisroel continuing to study Torah and fulfill its mitzvos. We beg the government not to put difficulties in our path, for otherwise they will totally uproot Klal Yisroel. May Hashem help us continue our present path so that gedolim and talmidei chachomim can continue to flourish. For the purpose of Klal Yisroel is Torah and yiras Shomayim.

 

Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein said that he was certain that Rav Shteinman’s tears had pierced the gates of heaven, reached the Throne of Glory, and annulled the evil decree.

 

“Tears like these, pure tears shed solely because of the spiritual danger faced by the generation and the spiritual decrees that threaten, never reached the heavens for years,” he said. “We speak of such tears when we beg Hashem in Selichos to treasure our tears, pleading, ‘Shetosim dimoseinu benodcha lihiyos.’

 

The Belzer Rebbe said that every member of the Moetzes must be willing to be thrown into prison to save the Torah world.

 

“We must declare that Torah students will not be drafted!” he said. “If, chalilah, they try to force army enlistment upon them, all of us, all the rabbeim and rabbonim sitting here, will go to prison in their stead.”

 

At the end of the united meeting, the conclusions of the evening were announced: “Alarmed and fearful, the Councils of Torah Sages express deep sorrow at the wave of coarse incitement promulgated by a handful of people trying to turn the people of Eretz Yisroelagainst those who fear the word of Hashem and especially against those who learn the holy Torah in whose merit the world exists, the precious bnei yeshivos who study Torah day and night, elevating themselves in yiras Shomayim with sanctity and purity. People are undermining them with various ploys and trying to interfere with their aliyah in Torah and yiras Shomayim.

 

“The Councils of Torah Sages expresses appreciation of our representatives who work faithfully at our behest, opposing those who wish to harm the sacred in general and Torah learners in particular.

 

“The Councils of Torah Sages particularly requests that the heads of government make no changes to everything done so far regarding Torah students and in all matters relating to the Jewish character [of the country] that prevailed until now in Eretz Yisroel.We also turn to all our Jewish brethren with an impassioned plea: Please, cease your evil, for the survival of Yisroel in all generations depends solely on Torah study and fulfilling its mitzvos in purity. Only through this can we preserve the true nature of the people, and at a time like this we are obliged to add from the holy to the mundane.

 

“…The eyes of Yisroel are lifted in prayer to the Creator to hurry to our redemption and we hope for the new light that will illuminate Tziyon when Hashem becomes King over the entire world.”

 

Although he was unable to attend the meeting, Rav Boruch Mordechai Ezrachi’s subconscious remained linked with the distress of Klal Yisroel as he lay sedated in the hospital. People present with him said that when he regained consciousness on Shabbos morning his, first question was, “What’s happening with the drafting of bnei yeshivos? Has anything been done?”

 

Shas is united with the Torah party in the war against compulsory conscription.In the course of his weekly Motzoei Shabbos drashah, Rav Ovadiah Yosef said that MK Lapid is “contemptible and hates yeshivos.”

 

MK Eli Yishai of Shas warned that conscription of yeshiva talmidim would lead to chaos.

 

“There will be marches and processions of thousands, tens of thousands, in the streets,” he told the Israel Hayom paper. “Thousands of yeshiva students will fill up the jail cells. Military police officers will be running around aimlessly in Bnei Brak. You’ll have a civilian uprising, pandemonium. Worst of all, those who are enlisting today will refuse to enlist en masse.”

 

He warned that Lapid was in danger of suffering the same fate as Shaul Mofaz, whose Kadima party crashed after he put all his energies into trying to create a new conscription bill.

 

“Lapid needs to draw the appropriate conclusions by considering what happened to Kadima, which had 28 Knesset seats,” he said. “At the time, it decided to bang its head against the wall by trying to attain universal conscription. If Lapid adopts an all-or-nothing approach, he will reserve a spot for himself in the Knesset archives. He’ll crash and burn. If, on the other hand, he summons leadership, he will understand that compromise is what is needed and he will acknowledge the importance of Torah study.

 

Rav Yitzchok Scheiner, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Kamenitz in Yerushalayim, said that bnei Torah must be ready to fight against conscription with mesirus nefesh.

 

“We are going through a time of shmad and distress for Yaakov,” he said. “Yisroel and the Torah world are in a frightening predicament. The wicked are rising up to uproot the Torah, Rachmona liztlon.

 

“Wicked people, haters of the Torah and the Creator, are planning to rebel against him, chalilah,” he added. “They want to uproot everything. They want to close the yeshivos and force bnei Torah to cease studying Torah. We must prepare for every eventuality. We must be ready to go to prison or leave Eretz Yisroel.The High Court would force us to close the Gemara in the pursuit of equality. What kind of equality? To be like them, Rachmona litzlon?They must realize that nothing can be forced upon us. We will continue raising the banner of Torah with strength and pride and fear nothing.”

 

Rav Scheiner related that when Poland enacted a law against shechitah, arguing that it was a cruel practice showing that Jews lacked compassion for animals, the Chofetz Chaim said that the underlying reason for the decree was that Jews were insufficiently careful about kashrus.

 

“If we are threatened with a decree against Torah study, this proves and demonstrates that we must do teshuvah and increase our learning and yiras Shomayim,” he said. “We must guard the purity of our eyes and thoughts, and utilize every second to study Torah, for Torah will shield us and save us from harm.”

 

ROOM FOR EVERYONE 

 

During the past week, things picked up for chareidi parties as Netanyahu seemed more determined than ever to create as wide a coalition as possible. Last week, Lapid put himself in Netanyahu’s bad graces by declaring that if he found himself in the opposition, he planned to replace Netanyahu as prime minister after six months. This helped Netanyahu realize that he should put his trust with the chareidi parties, who have been with him through thick and thin for years.

 

At the same time, fearing that Lapid was trying to strengthen his bargaining power by forging a united bloc with Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi, chareidim contacted Religious Zionist rabbis and pointed out that Lapid’s conscription plan was no less a menace to the Religious Zionist yeshivos. After pressure from Religious Zionist rabbis and its own party members, Habayit Hayehudi decided that Lapid’s conscription plan was unacceptable.

 

MK Uri Ariel, second in the Habayit Hayehudi list after Naftoli Bennet, spoke of his party’s attitude to the Hamevaser newspaper, saying that his party would not draft women or institute criminal penalties for yeshiva students who fail to serve.

 

“Whoever sits and learns will continue to sit and learn,” he said. “The plan I am formulating will relate to future legislation on a purely civil basis, such as cancellation of reductions in municipal taxes and such. We consulted with rabbis. We hear their opinions and consider them in internal discussions about various current issues. So it was with the National Religious Party and so it is with Habayit Hayehudi. Nonetheless, the ultimate decision is solely of the party members.”

 

Members of Lapid’s party had grumbled against being in partnership with Habayit Hayehudi, the Knesset’s most right-wing party that has extremists in its ranks. The close coordination between the two parties is now a thing of the past due in part to their complaints.

 

“There is no pact between Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi,” MK Meir Cohen of Yesh Atid said. “There are agreements on shared interests, but there are also vast differences.”

 

As Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi drew apart, Eli Yishai phoned Bennet and the two agreed to meet in the coming days. However, a high-ranking Habayit Hayehudi member claimed that a clash between the two parties is inevitable.

 

“It’s logical in [Bennett’s] point of view that Shas stays on the outside [of the coalition] and United Torah Judaism on the inside,” he said. “Our problems are only with Shas. They have been attacking us ever since the elections. Both we and Shas want the Religious Services Ministry and that’s what all the fighting is about.”

 

Meanwhile, the Maariv reported that the head of Yisroel Beiteinu, Avigdor Lieberman, was pressing Netanyahu to choose Yair Lapid as well as the chareidim. Lieberman said that Lapid was an “appropriate person for a future coalition. He understands the limits; he understands he needs to be in the coalition. He is much more open than what the media is presenting.”

 

But Lieberman made clear that the Foreign Ministry would not go to Lapid but would be held in reserve for him until the end of his corruption trial.

 

“The foreign portfolio will remain in the hands of Prime Minister Netanyahu until the conclusion of legal proceedings against me, at which point it will return to Yisroel Beiteinu,” he said. “Yair Lapid will most likely follow the money, which means he will ask to head the Finance Ministry.

 

For now, apparently, Netanyahu wants a coalition that includes at least Yesh Atid, Habayit Hayehudi, Shas, UTJ, Hatnuah, and Kadima.

 

As he continues to negotiate with various parties this week, one of his representatives is trying to draft a conscription plan that he thinks will be acceptable to all. He held a series of meetings with various parties to try and hammer out a satisfactory compromise.

 

During Monday coalition talks, Likud reportedly presented the parties headed by Bennett and Lapid a new proposal for drafting yeshiva people. Netanyahu would like to use this as the starting point for future coalition talks. Drawn up by head of the National Economic Council, Professor Eugene Kandel, it is said to be an “improved model” of an earlier conscription proposal made by Minister Moshe Yaalon. Instead of imposing quotas of how many yeshivaleit must enlist, this new proposal relies more on positive and negative financial incentives to encourage increased conscription.

 

For example, if the army only succeeds in enlisting 85% of the number of yeshiva studentsit says it requires at a certain time, the government would drop its support for yeshivos from a billion shekels to 850 million shekels.

 

“The model presented by Yesh Atid is a model that cannot be implemented by consensus and without coercing the chareidi population, which is why we cannot adopt it,” a Likud official explained. “By contrast, the Kandel outline is one that can be implemented and that can be promoted to the various factions.”

 

Reports indicate that Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi will not accept that proposal as presented. Lapid wants a conscription law that puts the chareidim squarely under the government’s thumb, with minimal wriggle room, as he emphasized in his first Knesset speech.

 

“Above all,” he said, “the broken thing, the thing lying before us broken into pieces, is the ability of the state to act as a master over the groups that comprise it.”

 

In response to Lapid’s allegations, MK Eliezer Mozes of UTJ, who spoke next, said that Lapid was ignoring far worse problems facing Israel.

 

Mozes delivered a brief history lesson concerning Lapid’s genealogical history.

 

“Your grandfather, David Giladi, was born in Transylvania-Austro Hungary as David Klein,” he said. “His father, Rav Shlomo Zalman Klein, was the father of a family of18 children, a family devoted to its roots, a family that was not ashamed of its Jewish identity or of Torah observance. The family is descended from a great morei hora’ah, the gaon Rav Shmuel Shmelke Klein, rov of Selesh, who is described in the Sheim Hagedolim as a ‘tremendous tzaddik, famous to the ends of the earth,’ and author of the sefer Tzeror Hachaim, whichis studied in all the yeshivos.

 

Regarding Lapid’s denigration of chareidi education in his speech, Mozes reminded him of the gloomy statistics of secular youth: 30,000 juveniles are subjects of police reports, 60,000 pupils are on drugs, 200,000 have been booked for drunkenness, and 2,000 teachers have been attacked by their pupils. He pointed out that of the 60 billion shekels Israel spent on education in 2012, only five billion was directed towards chareidi children, who comprise almost 25% of the school population.

 

“Do you really think that 100,000 yeshiva students can be conscripted by force?” he concluded. “How will there be enough land for prisons for them if there is no land for apartments for young couples?”

 

Lapid’s inflexibility is reinforced by information that Yesh Atid voters, as well as Israelis who share his views, expect him to join a coalition without Shas. MK Yishai of Shas expressed fears that Netanyahu would prefer making a coalition with Yesh Atid rather than with chareidi parties.

 

“My feeling is that the prime minister prefers Yesh Atid over us,” he said on Tuesday. “Lapid himself simply does not want to sit with us [in the government], and no solution for enlistment will satisfy him. He will say ‘no’ to every offer, but he will not say this because he does not want to come across as hating chareidim.”

 

Likud sources have said the same.

 

“The formula for sharing the burden is secondary,” said a senior Likud source. “The main problem is that Yesh Atid doesn’t want to sit in a coalition with the chareidi parties. If Yesh Atid decides that it will join a government with the chareidim, it is possible to also pave the way on the matter of the law for sharing the burden.”

 

On Monday, Bennett spoke to Netanyahu face to face for the first time in five years. Bennett had served as Netanyahu’s chief of staff until they had a falling out. The two shook hands at the Knesset’s swearing-in ceremony last week and spoke on the phone during the course of the elections. After the two-hour meeting, the Prime Minister’s Office said that the two would continue their talks in coming days.

 

Reportedly, Netanyahu intends to offer Bennett a juicy deal – the chance to be first to sign onto his coalition. As reward for the commitment, he would have a choice among ministerial portfolios, including Industry, Trade and Labor, Infrastructure, and Transportation, besides choosing leadership of prestigious Knesset committees and helping set fundamental guidelines on economic and diplomatic issues. The offer will hopefully induce Bennett to break from his agreements with Yesh Atid and puts chareidi parties at a major disadvantage.

 

MK Moshe Gafni, Chairman of the Knesset’s powerful Finance Committee, breathed a sigh of relief after Habayit Hayehudi number two MK Uri Uriel informed him that he had given up his intention of seizing control of the temporary Monetary Council that is functioning until a permanent government is formed. Uriel’s colleagues said he climbed down because of “his great appreciation for Gafni’s work and his performance as chairman of the council.”

 

UTJ is seriously hoping that if they join the new government, Gafni will continue in this important post.

 

Meanwhile, Rabbi Yoel Schwartz, one of the founders of the Nachal Chareidi battalion that was founded to provide a suitable environment for chareidi soldiers, warned that the IDF was making it impossible for even working chareidim to want to serve in the armed forces.

 

“It’s worse than you can possibly imagine,” he told Arutz Sheva. “They do not keep their word. We had a chareidi unit in the navy, a torpedo unit that worked with the submarines. The IDF did not fulfill the conditions [promised]. They brought in girls. We closed the unit immediately.

 

“People who aren’t religious need to understand that they need to be flexible with us. Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu needs to go sit with Rav Ovadiah Yosef and Rav Shteinman and brainstorm.”

 
OBAMA’S INFLUENCE

 

Since last week, Netanyahu has shown interest in extending his coalition to also include the Hatnuah and Labor parties, which are further to the left. This may be partially because of President Obama’s imminent visit in March. Although White House spokesman Jay Carney played down speculation that new peace initiatives might be a feature of Obama’s visit, emphasizing “that is not the purpose of this visit,” he admitted that “a variety of issues will be discussed, as they always are, when the president meets with Prime Minister Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders.” These are likely to include getting the peace talks back onto track.

 

Indeed, officials close to Netanyahu are expecting an announcement of renewed talks with the Palestinians to be made just before or during Obama’s visit, and Netanyahu has reiterated that resuming the Israel-PA talks is one of his top priorities for his upcoming term.

 

Obama’s visit may be an incentive for Netanyahu to bring centrist parties such as Hatnuah and Labor into the government to balance the rightist elements of Likud and Bennett’s rightist Habayit Hayehudi party. Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah, with six seats, may be the first party on the verge of entering Netanyahu’s coalition, despite her imposing resumption of the peace process as a precondition for joining, so long as she understands that she will act under his supervision and on his behalf.

 

“Livni is a very important actor in politics,” said Lieberman. “I will certainly be happy if she joins the coalition. We haven’t spoken about a specific post. It’s clear Tzipi will want to be involved in the negotiations with the Palestinians, but she isn’t entering a vacuum. There is someone who led these contacts for the past four years, [Netanyahu’s peace envoy] Yitzchok Molcho.”

 

Ironically, Lieberman also said recently that “It is not possible to reach a permanent peace agreement with the Palestinians,” and suggested that Israel seek a long-term interim deal instead. Labor Chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich is also under pressure to join Netanyahu’s coalition despite many declarations before the elections that she would never join forces with him. In defiance of her stance, a number of senior Labor members have openly said that for them the coalition option is on the table, although Netanyahu would need to bend somewhat to accommodate Labor’s two main demands, moving more towards a socialist economy and making progress on the Palestinian peace process. Sources within Labor add that Yachimovich would also demand a top economic portfolio.

 

“Labor cannot forgo an opportunity to shape socio-economic policy in Israel over the coming years,” one Labor official explained. “If Netanyahu lets Yachimovich implement the party’s economic and social agenda, there is simply no chance Labor will say no.”

 

Yachimovich is still pessimistic about such an outcome.

 

“The conversation was interesting,” she said after meeting Netanyahu. “But we have unfathomable gaps in terms of our outlooks on socio-economic issues in Israel, as well as on restarting the peace process. In light of these differences, the Labor party will serve the people from the opposition, as was already decided.”