Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Likud convening, January 25, 2015.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
During the mass ultra-Orthodox rally in Bnei Brak in March ahead of the general election, one man told this reporter that he was not so concerned with what he termed “anti-Torah” laws passed or proposed by the last government as he was about the sharp reduction in child welfare payments that it had enacted.
This man’s worries about the financial security of his family reflects what was the overriding priority for the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) public – and therefore for the haredi political leadership – during the election campaign and the coalition negotiations between the Likud and United Torah Judaism that were finalized on Thursday.
The freshly inked agreement will significantly ease such financial concerns within the haredi community, and what can be expected for the duration of the next government therefore is a total stasis on two of the critical goals of the last coalition – getting haredi men into military service and into the work force.
These objectives were seen as crucial steps in securing the long-term economic viability of the state given the haredi community’s rapid rate of expansion. As of 2014, 25 percent of all schoolchildren were in the haredi education system, and half of the haredi population is under 14.
As such, cuts were made to welfare budgets and financial support for the haredim, which were widely described as evil “decrees” by the ultra-Orthodox sector because of the financial pressures they brought to bear on it.
This pressure was designed to act as a negative incentive to push full-time yeshiva students out of their study halls and into the work force, but the new coalition deal will effectively restore the state-funding enjoyed by the haredi community to the same levels as the status quo antebellum, that is, before Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid took up arms against the state’s largesse toward the haredi sector.
Alongside the renewed financial disbursements, the agreement will also eviscerate the law for haredi conscription passed last year, removing the legal obligation for haredi yeshiva students to serve, without providing any negative incentives, such as economic sanctions, to replace it.
Without any legal or financial pressure on haredi men to enlist for military service or to leave the study halls of the yeshiva for the work force, it is unlikely that there will be any progress during the lifetime of the next government in dealing with the economic challenges presented by the demographic shifts that are likely to take place in the next 20 or 30 years.
But the Likud-UTJ coalition deal does not just presage economic challenges for Israeli society, but religious and social ones too, and will have an enormous bearing on religious life as well as the state’s relationship with the Jewish Diaspora.
The strong presence of the pluralistic Yesh Atid party in the government and its warm attitude to the frequently frustrated liberal representatives of Diaspora Jewry was another note of optimism for those who wished to see greater religious choice adopted in Israel and to create better relations with world Jewry, which has often complained of feeling alienated by Israel’s haredi-dominated Orthodox religious establishment.
The deal explicitly restores to UTJ the total legislative veto on all matters of religion and state that it has enjoyed during previous governments that it has been partner to.
A similar veto was held by the national-religious Bayit Yehudi party in the last government, of which it made frequent use, but the faction did nevertheless initiate and support reforms to the provision of religious services, and showed some measure of flexibility on issues such as conversion reform, provision of kashrut and others.
But any progress on issues such as “chained women” and divorce refusal, the lack of access and rigidity of the conversion courts, reform of religious services, public transport on Shabbat, prayer rights at the Western Wall – not to mention broader issues such as civil unions and Orthodox control of the religious establishment – will now be frozen for the duration of the next government.
Following the optimism and increased expectations in many quarters on these issues at the beginning of the 33rd government of Israel, the deep freeze on these issues in the 34th government could lead to a crisis of legitimacy for the Jewish religious establishment and its institutions within Israel.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has conceded ground to the haredi parties on both the economic concerns vis-a-vis the ultra-Orthodox community’s place in the state and on their control of the religion and state nexus.
What remains to be seen is how strongly Bayit Yehudi and Yisrael Beytenu will fight the transfer of authority to UTJ and Shas in these realms. Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman has consistently advocated for greater haredi integration into the IDF and work force, while Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett is concerned for his own legitimacy with his national-religious base should he abandon the Religious Services Ministry to Shas.
But Bayit Yehudi’s lack of any political alternative to a Likud-led coalition with its haredi partners and Yisrael Beytenu’s weakened Knesset strength make it unlikely that anyone will stop UTJ from implementing the significant concessions it has obtained in its coalition agreement.