(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
If not for the long sidelocks, the black frocks and the Yiddish-inflected speech, one could have easily mistaken Sunday's meeting in the haredi town of Betar Illit for a rally of right-wing settlers.
United Torah Judaism's six MKs, who were joined by settlement leaders such as mayor of Ma'aleh Adumim and former head of the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza Strip Benny Kashriel, called on Shas, the Sephardi haredi coalition member, to issue an ultimatum: lift the freeze on building in the Gush Etzion settlement or leave the government.
"If Shas were to demand today that building should resume in Betar it would happen," said UTJ chairman Ya'acov Litzman.
A Shas spokesman said in response that building in and around Jerusalem was "very important to Shas."
Under US pressure, the government has frozen construction on some 1,200 units in Betar Illit, a city of 35,000 and the fastest-growing town beyond the Green Line. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is presently in Israel to facilitate negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, and she sees Jewish settlement construction in places like Betar Illit as a major obstacle to the peace process. Meanwhile, on Monday, Shas Chairman Eli Yishai is slated to lead his 12-member faction in a tour of Betar Illit. He is expected to make a declaration about his party's commitment to building in the haredi city. But it is unclear whether Shas will threaten to leave the coalition over Betar Illit. Mayor Meir Rubinstein likened the freeze on building beyond the Green Line to "strangulation."
"This government is strangling us," said Rubinstein, who belongs to the Breslav hassidic sect.
"It is simply impossible to stop the building in places like Ma'aleh Adumim, Gush Etzion, Efrat and Givat Ze'ev," added Rubinstein. "We met here today to cry out to the government to allow the building to continue." MK Avraham Ravitz (UTJ) called for pressure on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
"Olmert is not ideologically opposed to settlements," said Ravitz.
"We have to bring him to the point where he will be forced to tell Rice, 'I'm under too much pressure. I can't stop building.'"
Even Litzman, who normally avoids commenting on territorial issues, pointed out that the Torah sages who advise UTJ on political issues oppose the building freeze.
Asked if he was concerned that pushing to build in Betar Illit would hurt Israel's relations with the US, Litzman answered, "Rice is in favor of dividing Jerusalem. But the Torah sages are against it. We are not trying to arouse the anger of the US, we're just listening to our rabbis."
At the Annapolis Middle East peace conference in November, both the Israelis and the Palestinians committed to carrying out their obligations under US President George Bush's road map peace plan, whose first phase requires the Palestinians to break up and disarm terror groups and obliges Israel to freeze "all settlement activity, including natural growth of settlements."
Sunday's meeting in Betar Illit was also indicative of the sea change in the political sensibilities of the haredi population - which numbers between 500,000 and 700,000.
Historically, haredim have refrained from getting involved in security and diplomacy issues. This was due, in part, to a religious belief that Jews, who had been sent into exile by God for their sins, should not forcibly take control of the Land of Israel until God signaled the exile was over. It was also because the vast majority of haredi men avoid mandatory army service, opting instead to devote their time to Torah study. Thus, haredim felt they did not have the right to express opinions on security issues.
However, the creation a decade and a half ago of Betar Illit, just five kilometers outside Jerusalem and beyond the Green Line, effectively tied the destiny of the burgeoning haredi population with that of the West Bank settlers.
Betar Illit was founded to solve the housing shortage that plagued the haredi population. With fertility rates at five children per family on average, traditional haredi towns such as Jerusalem and Bnei Brak gradually became too expensive as demand skyrocketed.
Betar Illit also served hawkish political interests that wanted to create "facts on the ground" in the West Bank. Settlements such as Betar Illit, it was hoped, would help prevent future territorial compromises to the Palestinians.
According to Yossi Cohen, director-general of Betar Illit's Municipal Building Development Company, there is a demand for at least 500 new housing units yearly. Every year, 2,500 babies are born in Betar Illit and another 2,500 move there with their families from other towns. One-third of the city's population is under the age of 18.
Betar Illit's mayor said he was aware that building there made his Palestinian neighbors angry.
"We do everything we can to stay on good terms with our neighbors. We even built them a special access road that enables them to get to their fields," Rubinstein said. "But it's unreasonable for us to stop building inside Betar. To tell you the truth, I doubt they would be happy even if we moved back inside the Green Line."