Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a conference in Tel Aviv on February 14.
(photo credit: REUTERS/NIR ELIAS)
Amid the current political uncertainty – will the attorney general recommend indicting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? Will early elections be called? Who will the next prime minister be? – there is a general atmosphere of “catch-as-catch-can” among coalition members, and among the government as such.
No one seems to be thinking anymore of what is good for the state and its citizens as a whole. The current motto seems to be “après moi le déluge.”
Especially baffling is the current position of the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties, which have somehow maneuvered themselves into an ultimatum: by the end of the Knesset’s winter session (March 18), a law must be passed which stipulates that Torah study is a supreme value, and that consequently all students of the Torah are exempt from military service.
Even more confusing is the fact that their demand is for this to be a basic law – in other words, a constitutional law.
The first reason this is baffling is that the position of the haredi parties has always been against the enactment of a constitution, and of the basic laws that are to add up to a constitution some day.
The late MK Avraham Ravitz (United Torah Judaism) explained this position in the following words in the Knesset plenum on March 17 1992, when Basic Law: Human Dignity and Freedom was debated in its second reading: “For us, the religious Jews, a constitution already exists, it is the constitution of the Torah... Therefore, I am opposed in principle to a constitution.”
Four years later, on February 19, 1996 (just before the elections to the 14th Knesset), MK Arye Deri (Shas) stated during a debate on three additional basic laws on human rights (none of which was approved): “Even if you were to bring the Ten Commandments in a basic law... I would vote against. I don’t know what you are conspiring to do to us together with the justices of the Supreme Court....”
The second reason this demand, at this particular time, is baffling is that the haredi parties know that there are two parties in the coalition which object to this proposal on principle – Yisrael Beytenu and Kulanu – and their insistence on bringing their proposal to the plenum before the Knesset recess could well bring down the government.
Nevertheless, even if the haredi parties finally back down, this style of extreme brinkmanship is quite unusual, even in our insane political system.
The total lack of political logic involved might indicate that it is the haredi rabbis who are responsible, and not the haredi politicians. The latter certainly understand that the recent flood of extreme haredi demands – on stopping the opening of supermarkets and the performance of public works on Shabbat, and now the sweeping, unconditional exemption of haredi youths from military service (whether or not they are really studying in yeshivot), merely strengthens Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid party, and enrages the secular and national religious publics, which together still support the concept of mamlachtiyut (seeing things from a statist rather than a sectorial point of view) as it manifests itself in mandatory universal military service for Jewish men. At the time of writing the haredi parties are threatening not to vote in favor of the 2019 budget in second and third readings if the legislation concerning the abolishment of the haredi draft is not approved simultaneously.
The votes on the budget are to take place before the end of the winter session in two weeks’ time.
The 2019 budget itself is another manifestation of the current collapse of sanity on the one hand, and of mamlachtiyut on the other, in the political arena.
Since Netanyahu’s reelection in 2009 Israel has had four biennial budgets, the main purpose of which appears to have been to avoid bringing an annual budget to the Knesset and having to face serious Knesset scrutiny of it. The official excuse for the biennial budgets is to avoid wasting the time that preparing an annual budget and getting it approved involve. The fact that just over a year after the Knesset approved the biennial budget for 2017-18, a budget for 2019 was submitted – well over half a year earlier than usual – and was approved in first reading (on February 13), proves that there is no problem regarding preparing and submitting a budget whenever the government may see fit.
In fact, the only reason Netanyahu and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon decided to introduce the 2019 budget so early is to ensure that the government survives until the end of 2019 (when the elections to the 21st Knesset are to take place) without the threat of its being brought down as a result of the budget failing to be approved by March 31, 2019, in accordance with article 36a(a) of Basic Law: the Knesset.
Both Netanyahu and Kahlon have praised the proposed budget as a fine, balanced budget that will help reduce inequalities in the economy and society, even though it’s common knowledge that a budget prepared so long in advance (as is also true of the second year in the biennial budget), in a period of political instability and totally inaccurate economic forecasts, isn’t worth the paper it is printed on.
In other words, the 2019 budget has little or nothing to do with the welfare of the state or its citizens, and certainly not with decreasing inequalities and encouraging unity, but is primarily about the survival of the current government, almost at any cost.
The question now is who will back down to prevent the government from falling apart: the haredim, Yisrael Beytenu and Kulanu, or perhaps Netanyahu himself? On top of everything else we seem to be in the midst of a game of “chicken.”
One of the most urgent needs of Israel today is a return to mamlachtiyut. It is certainly legitimate for each and every party that joins a coalition, any coalition, to seek to promote the interests of the public that it represents.
It is also legitimate for a government to seek to survive – but not at any cost. Hopefully Israel’s 35th government – no matter when and under what circumstances it is formed, who heads and what its make-up is – will place mamlachtiuyut as one of its top priorities, and will put some brakes on sectorial agendas within it.