Five days before Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu formally submitted his new government to the Knesset in March 2009, The Jerusalem Post printed the following assessment of the coalition’s staying power in its Frontlines section: “The government’s survival could depend on haredi rabbis making compromises, which is never a good risk to take.”
More than three years later, Netanyahu is just four months away from passing the late Yitzhak Shamir as the prime minister who served second-longest after David Ben-Gurion.
Shamir was buried this week, and it is possible that thanks to the haredi rabbis’ inability to compromise, Netanyahu’s coalition will be, too.
The focus at the Knesset over the past two months has been on the national unity government that Netanyahu and Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz formed May 8. The inability of Netanyahu and Mofaz to get along so soon into their political marriage does not bode well for a long-term partnership between the two.
But it is possible that the most serious political development over the past two months actually took place inside United Torah Judaism’s Degel Hatorah faction. Control over the party has shifted from 102-year-old Rabbi Shalom Yosef Elyashiv, who is in critical condition, to Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, who is only 98.
In the past it seemed UTJ would become more flexible following Elyashiv’s departure.
After all, Shteinman authorized the formation of the Nahal Haredi army unit. But instead, Shteinman has started his leadership by ordering MKs Moshe Gafni and Uri Maklev not to compromise at all on yeshiva students going to the army.
“It is known to all that the world is sustained in the merit of the Torah and those who study it,” Shteinman said in Yated Ne’eman. “It is therefore a holy obligation to permit anyone who learns Torah to do so, and it is not appropriate to abandon even one yeshiva student, nor is it appropriate to compromise on this.”
While Shas has presented its willingness to compromise and Kadima has once again accepted humiliation, UTJ remains the toughest nut for Netanyahu to crack. Amid all the speculation about early elections and unsolvable disputes between Netanyahu and Mofaz and Shas and Yisrael Beytenu, the most likely scenario is still that UTJ will be the only party to leave Netanyahu’s coalition.
Leaving the coalition now would paint Mofaz as a failure and even more of a political zigzagger than he was before.
His political future, and possibly Kadima’s as well, depends on him settling his differences with Netanyahu.
Shas, Yisrael Beytenu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s Independence Party still have an interest in avoiding elections at all costs due to the questionable political fate of their party leaders. And Netanyahu is aware that going to an election now – when he would be painted as the defender of the haredim – would not be smart.
So as painful as compromises are, every party has an interest in making them except one.
While it is possible that UTJ’s departure could lead to the entire coalition crumbling, it remains an unlikely scenario.
Thankfully for Netanyahu, if UTJ leaves, his coalition would still number 89 MKs. His government’s survival no longer depends on haredi rabbis making compromises.