Sunday, Apr 14, 2024

Government Takes Shape

By the time you read this, Israel will probably have a new coalition and the government will be in place on time to welcome President Barack Obama on his trip to Yerushalayim next week. It hasn't come easy. For the past week, Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu struggled to conclude the deal with upstarts Naftoli Bennett and Yair Lapid by this week's deadline. Netanyahu sought to seal the deal by Monday and present a government to President Shimon Peres on Wednesday. Lapid, on the other hand, deliberately stretched out the negotiations to squeeze out maximum concessions. He succeeded in his boycott against having any chareidim in the government. They are frozen out of power and fuming at Netanyahu and Lapid, as well as the Religious Zionist Habayit Hayehudi party for being part of Lapid's agenda to create a new Israel that favors personal freedom at the expense of Torah.



As the coalition was being finalized, Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, rabbi of the Shomron, and Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, rabbi of Tzefas, both prominent National-Religious rabbis influential in Habayit Hayehudi, appealed to its leaders to negotiate with the chareidi parties.


“We come to express our concern at the coalition negotiations that are boycotting the chareidi parties,” they wrote. “Despite a gap in attitudes and deeds, nonetheless, we are all, they and us, supporters of the Torah and its mitzvos. We turn to you with a clear appeal: Open immediate negotiations with the chareidi parties! …How can we educate our children to love Jews if the heads of our party behave contrary to this ideal? We believe that our words emanating from the heart will enter your hearts.”


Their appeal was too little, too late, and fell on deaf ears.


The last ditch plan for chareidim to link in unity with Shelly Yachimovich’s Labor Party also bit the dust. Yachimowitz said the idea was hopeless, as all Netanyahu did was discuss ministerial seats, showing no readiness to accommodate her financial policies.


In chareidi neighborhoods, signs went up protesting, “A Jew doesn’t boycott a Jew!” a parody of the protest slogan popular in the months leading up to the Gaza disengagement, “A Jew doesn’t banish a Jew!” Another sign read, “Remember what Habayit Hayehudi did to you; do not forget!”


Chareidi ministers expressed their protest at the situation by boycotting the final meeting of the outgoing Knesset cabinet on Sunday. At the event, Netanyahu praised the cabinet for guiding Israel through the past four years, which were so financially disastrous for many other countries.


“This cabinet will go down in history as one of the governments that achieved more than almost any other government in the history of the State of Israel,” he said. “We made the State of Israel safer, more prosperous, and more advanced in all the aspects that we dealt with. We did all this while the world around us is changing for the worse. The regional situation is deteriorating, the global economy is shaken and unstable, and the State of Israel, in this regard, is in much better shape. I expect the ministers in the next cabinet to take an example from your accomplishments.”




Meanwhile, the coalition talks dragged on. A huge hurdle was Lapid’s demand to be foreign minister, a position Netanyahu is reserving for Avigdor Lieberman when and if he is cleared of the court charges against him. In the end, Lapid settled for the Finance Ministry, where he can investigate “Where has all the money gone?” – a slogan he constantly shrilled during the elections.


Lapid’s job will be all the harder after a report the ministry issued stating that Israel’s economical growth of 2.5% during the last quarter of 2012 was the lowest it experienced in the past 13 quarters. Production, exports, business revenues and tax collection all dropped.


The Finance Ministry recommends slicing the 2013-14 budgets by a total of $8.1 billion. To achieve this, it suggests raising sales tax by one percent to 18% and removing the sales tax exemption of fruits and vegetables, as well as cutting $813 million from child subsidies, cutting public sector salaries, and increasing the retirement age of women from 62 to 67, in addition to eliminating housing benefits for chareidim in favor of veteran soldiers and young couples where both spouses work. Municipal authorities funding will be cut by $95 to $190 million.


Once Lapid dropped his insistence for the foreign ministry, negotiations shifted into high gear. Motzoei Shabbos turned into an all-night negotiation marathon followed by long talks on Sunday afternoon and night.


Holding up a final deal was Lapid’s demand to reduce Israel’s inflated cabinet from 31 ministers to 18, plus bickering over who should get which ministerial portfolios. In the end, Lapid settled for cutting the 31 ministers to 21, including the prime minister.On the other hand, Netanyahu arranged for a disproportional number of the ministers to come from his party. Likud-Beiteinu, with 31 seats, will have 12 ministers, while all other parties – numbering 37 seats – will have only 9 ministers. Tzipi Livni is complaining that the arrangement revokes Netanyahu’s promise that her party would have two portfolios, and Likud-Beiteinu MKs are disgruntled that limiting the number of ministers bars younger MKs from joining the new cabinet.


It was also agreed that Naftoli Bennett will be Minister of Industry, Trade and Labor. By Monday, Lapid was fighting for one of his party’s last demands, the Education Ministry for Rabbi Shai Piron of Yesh Atid. This powerful post would give Piron control of an annual budget of over $10 billion, second in size only to the defense budget, and a great opportunity to cut funding for chareidi schools. Urged on by its own members, Likud wanted to retain the present education minister, Gideon Saar, in his position, where, by all accounts, he did a good job last time around. The chareidim were satisfied with Saar, and keeping him in his position would be an expression of goodwill by Netanyahu towards them.


By Tuesday, it seemed that the position may be rotated between the two contenders.


In an attempt to discredit Piron for the job, it was publicized that while publicly answering halachic shailos two years ago, he ruled, “One may not sell a house [in Eretz Yisroel] to an Arab, especially as this involves a prohibition.”


In reply to charges of racism, Piron’s office said that there was a difference between his rulings and his personal opinions: “Regarding selling apartments to Arabs, Rabbi Piron does not stand behind the halachic ruling in this issue. His activities during past years to draw Jews and Arabs together is absolute proof of this.”


If this is true, it is indicative of the party’s agenda to downgrade the role of – and respect for – halacha in Israel.


Lapid is also demanding the position of Interior Minister for his party, while Netanyahu prefers it for a Likud member. In addition, Lapid wants his party member Ofer Shelah appointed as head of the Monetary Council.  


All along, Lapid also wanted at least one of the top portfolios – Foreign Affairs, Finance or Defense – for his party. Bennett wanted the Religious Services Ministry and also wanted it expanded to include the Chief Rabbinate and conversion system (which are presently run by the Prime Minister’s Office), the rabbinical courts (which are presently under the Justice Ministry) and yeshiva funding (which is presently controlled by the Education Ministry).


“We are entering the government to change things and this is one of those things,” his party said in a statement. “We want the Religious Services Ministry to make it more efficient and to improve the issue of religion and state in the country. You can’t do that without these institutions. Take, for example, the conversion system that is under the jurisdiction of the Prime Minister’s Office. Everyone knows that the prime minister doesn’t concern himself with conversions; he doesn’t have time for that. There needs to be a minister who actually oversees the employees, makes demands and improves business.”


Once he achieves supreme religious power, Bennett has promised not to neglect chareidi interests.


“My brothers, the chareidim, I take it upon myself to take care of the world of the Torah and to represent you, even if the chareidi parties serve in the opposition,” he said.


Eli Yishai of Shas lost patience with this sort of talk.


“Enough using the pathetic word ‘brother’ that he tries to shove in at any opportunity,” he said. “He apparently does not know what it means.”


Another point holding up the coalition talks was finalizing an enlistment proposal for yeshiva students. In the end, all parties agreed to something very similar to the Plesner proposal violently fought over in the Knesset a few months ago. According to the plan, about 1,500 to 2,000 students will be exempted a year. The rest will not be criminally charged, but will suffer loss of income tax credits and government social welfare payments, and will be barred from leaving Israel. Yeshivos discouraging army service will be penalized with reduced government funding.




Reportedly, the coalition agreement also includes provisions that will drastically weaken Israeli’s religious status quo that has existed since the founding of the state. The agreement undertakes to allow public transportation in the center of Israel’s large cities, require all schools to teach a core curriculum of math, English and civics, and ease the demands made on converts before accepting them.


Chareidi sources warned that the last proposal could create myriad spurious Jews and split the nation into two.


“It could be that Lapid does not have a problem with creating two nations, one that is loyal to Jewish law and one that is not, but the chareidi community will have a huge problem with this,” the sources said. “This will be a split from which it will be impossible to recover.”


In addition to the damage chareidim incur from the above agreements, they will also lose three key political positions in the new government. MK Moshe Gafni will no longer be head of the Knesset Finance Committee, MK Menachem Eliezer Moses will no longer serve as deputy education minister, and MK Yaakov Margi of Shas will no longer head the Religious Services Ministry. This is in addition to the other ministries Shas headed in the past government.


Losing control over these positions may lead to chareidim losing hundreds of millions of shekels for education and Torah learning, as a huge proportion of this funding comes from internal government influence. Under the last government, for example, the Education Ministry culture budget supplied Shas and UTJ with NIS 60 million a year, while school systems received about NIS 100 yearly and yeshivos received billions. The chareidi educational budget has always been precarious, as its budgets are outside regular legislation and need to be renewed on a constant basis.


“Since the state’s founding, chareidi institutions have not been part of the state’s education system, owing to the pedagogic independence they have maintained and the ideology they have subscribed to,” Moshe Gafni explained. “If [the secular left-wing party] Meretz stays out of the government, its institutions would enjoy the same funding, because these budgets are written into law. But when it comes to the chareidi institutions, some bureaucrat or finance minister can simply decide one day to cut the funding or block the construction of a new chareidi school.”


With lack of chareidi power, it will also be harder for chareidim to be get positions in Israel’s 132 religious councils that provide services to municipalities and place rabbonim and dayonim into newly opened positions.


Reconciling themselves to a spell in the opposition, chareidi leaders declared that the new government is bad both for the chareidim and for the poorer elements of Israeli society.


“In front of our eyes, a bourgeois government is being established which consists entirely of the upper class, a government whose leaders do not know what it’s like to live in difficulty,” said Aryeh Deri of Shas. “If that were not bad enough, these [leaders] are also the ones who will cut into the living flesh, who will enact fierce budget cuts, and the ones who will immediately suffer from this are the weaker sectors of society.”


“An absurd situation has arisen in which legitimate political movements in Israel can openly declare that two million people should be excluded from government just because that’s what makes them comfortable,” he added. “The result is that 2,000,000 people, all of whom are citizens of the Second Israel, the Israel of the weak sectors, the Israel of those who can’t start the month and those who can’t finish the month, all remain without representation in the coming government.”


Moshe Gafni said that the boycotting of the chareidim threatens Israel’s longtime stability.


“From Israel’s founding onward, the time chareidim parties spent in the opposition has always exceeded their tenure inside the coalition governments,” he said. “This time around, something grave has occurred – people lied outright. Let’s say the Arab parties would one day announce that Israel should rule all the territory between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River and let’s say they announce that they would endorse whatever path the government pursues. Would anyone then reject them and veto their participation in the coalition simply because they are Arabs?


“This is unforgivable behavior,” he concluded. “Today it is the chareidim who are boycotted, tomorrow it will be the settlers’ turn, and two days from now it will be the Arabs’ turn. This is a self-destructing society.”


The harshest words were reserved for the leaders of Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi. During a shiur in Bnei Brak, Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman exclaimed, “For whom was gehennom created? For Mapainiks (members of the now-defunct infamous extreme far-left party), for Lapid.”


The Slonimer Rebbe, Rav Shmuel Berezovsky, said he thought Bennett must be under control of the sitra achra.


“There are those from the national-religious community who chose to unite and cooperate with those who do evil to Judaism,” he said. “It’s important to know that they are not doing this by themselves. The sitra achra has taken control of them, because otherwise it’s impossible to explain this.”


Meanwhile, a number of bochurim are currently in danger of arrest after ignoring enlistment requests from the army three times. Most bochurim called up still go to the enlistment offices hoping to receive temporary deferments. Others have been instructed by their roshei yeshiva to not go at all. A number of them recently received warrants saying that they are liable for arrest and rumors fly that mass arrests may come after Pesach.


On Monday, military police knocked at the door of a 20-year-old bochur who failed to arrange his deferment due to changing yeshivos in the past few months, dragged him to a military prison, and warned him, “If you do not sign the documents we place before you, you will be detained here for a long time.”


Signing the documents automatically set off the process of his induction into the IDF. When Rav Shteinman heard the story, he was struck wordless for two minutes and said, “A terrible gezeirah!” 


Regarding such developments, Rav Shmuel Auerbach stated, “When they threaten to take someone, it’s not that his personal problem. It’s the problem of all the Jewish people. They are considering ways to do it by plotting against individuals, but it’s not the personal problem of the family or the person, but of all the people of Klal Yisroel. When they attempt to uproot religion, every single person and every individual they try to hurt and take – it’s part of the destruction, part of the uprooting of religion.”


Yisrael Eichler of the UTJ compared the present political situation to a disease.


“When someone is a family is a sick or when there is no parnossah, this is a because of Heavenly decree,” he said. “In our situation also, we must accept the sufferings with love and try to minimize the damage to the greatest extent possible.”



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