As shown by the recent NIS 10,000 bill for ice cream at the taxpayers’ expense, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu doesn’t like digging into his own pocket and paying his own way. And yet, at the same time, he is acutely aware of some past debts and seems determined to pay them off.

One of the reasons for Netanyahu’s shock election victory over Shimon Peres in 1996, which brought him to the Prime Minister’s Office for the first time, was the support of the haredi public for his candidacy.

These elections were the first time the electorate had two envelopes to place in the ballot box: one for the candidate of their choice as prime minister and the second for the party of their choice, and it was not axiomatic back then that the haredi public would back Netanyahu.

First off, Peres had been an assiduous courter of the haredi parties in the Knesset over the years. While Yitzhak Rabin, the epitome of the Palmach-era sabra, made no effort to disguise his lack of religiosity – for Rabin, the only thing sacred on a Shabbat morning was his regular tennis match with his wife Leah – Peres in contrast would always fondly talk of his rabbinical grandfather in Poland and his own religious zeal as a young man, claiming to have smashed the family radio in Wiszniew when he found his parents listening to it on Shabbat.

Secondly, as these elections were the first (out of three elections, before the system was scrapped) for a directly elected prime minister, the issue of a candidate’s character became highly relevant. The secular, very American, thrice-married Netanyahu, who had also publically confessed on prime-time television to cheating on his most recent wife, hardly matched the haredi public’s own moral code.

But thanks to a racist election campaign – “Bibi is good for the Jews” – funded by Australian mining magnate and Chabad rabbi Joseph Gutnick, and energetically backed by the Lubavitch movement, Netanyahu won over enough of the haredi vote to beat Peres by a margin of 29,457 votes, less than one percent of the total number of votes cast, and became prime minister, despite the Likud winning fewer seats than Labor.

EVER SINCE, Netanyahu has closely allied himself to the reactionary haredi world, even though their welfaredependent way of life runs totally against his deeply held free-market beliefs. Netanyahu knows there is no logic in the state investing billions of shekels in the independent Shas and United Torah Judaism school systems, where pupils receive no secular education, and are left unfit to join the modern workforce and thus condemned to a life of government-subsidized poverty.

As the brother of a fallen military hero, and a former IDF officer himself, the prime minister also knows there is no moral justification for the government-sanctioned draft evasion of young haredi men while the rest of the country’s Jewish teenagers face compulsory enlistment.

And as a seasoned politician who devours opinion polls with the same relish that other men read the sports pages, Netanyahu further knows that last month’s elections were a clear vote in favor of ending the haredi stranglehold on Israeli life.

The astonishing success of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party on the one hand, and the re-emergence of the religious-Zionist camp under Naftali Bennett’s leadership of Bayit Yehudi, reflect a desire to see the country’s economic, defense and civic burdens be shared equally, among all sectors of the population.

IF NETANYAHU was a true leader, he would stop his foot-dragging over the current coalition negotiations and work flat-out to create the obvious coalition the election results have created: a government headed by Likud Beytenu, with Yesh Atid and Bayit Yehudi as the main partners, with Tzipi Livni’s and Shaul Mofaz’s parties adding extra ballast.

Such a coalition would provide him both with a comfortable majority and enable his government to tackle some of the country’s most pressing internal issues, such as military service for all and weaning the haredim off government handouts. And if, contrary to all expectations, any progress is made in negotiations with the Palestinians, which would cause Bayit Yehudi to drop out, then Netanyahu could confidently rely on backing from Labor and Meretz to ensure the negotiations’ continuance.

But no, our thrice-elected prime minister lacks the political courage to cast off his one-time allies who once brought him to power but who today prevent him from making the necessary reforms Israeli society both wants and needs. Loyalty is an admirable quality but it is time for Netanyahu to realize that his debt to the country’s future is far greater than any debt he might owe the haredim.

The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.

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