Israel elections: Why are the haredi factions feuding? - analysis

The two parties, which together make up United Torah Judaism, may run separately for the first time in 30 years.

The United Torah Judaism party celebrate MK Moshe Gafni's 70th birthday during a faction meeting, in the Israeli parliament. on May 9, 2022. (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
The United Torah Judaism party celebrate MK Moshe Gafni's 70th birthday during a faction meeting, in the Israeli parliament. on May 9, 2022.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

The ongoing rift between the two factions that make up the haredi party United Torah Judaism took a turn for the worse in recent days, and the chances are growing that the Lithuanian Degel Hatorah and the hassidic Agudat Yisrael will run separately in the upcoming election.

A poll by Maariv published on Friday found that if the two parties run separately, Degel would receive five seats while Agudat Yisrael would not pass the electoral threshold. The two parties have run together in every election since 1992.

They have been negotiating a joint run for over a month. But last Thursday evening, Degel Hatorah called off a meeting at the bequest of its spiritual leader, 99-year-old Rabbi Gershon Edelstein. The reason was that earlier that day, the Education Ministry published a “call for proposal” for schools to join the new “Belz Arrangement,” with the full consent of the Belz Hassidim, which is part of Agudat Yisrael.

What is this arrangement, and why does Edelstein have such a problem with it?

First, some background. A large swathe of the Ashkenazi haredi school system is based on what is known as the Independent Education System (Chinuch Atzmai), which includes the Beis Yaakov schools for girls and cheder and yeshiva ketana for boys, all of which have a strong emphasis on Jewish religious studies. Chinuch Atzmai schools receive approximately half of the funding of regular state schools, with the rest of their funding coming from donations.

MK Moshe Gafni of United Torah Judaism gestures during Knesset meeting, August 2, 2021 (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)MK Moshe Gafni of United Torah Judaism gestures during Knesset meeting, August 2, 2021 (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Chinuch Atzmai is run by the Lithuanian sector, and it refused a request by Belz to join the system in 2018. The reason was, and remains, quite strange: The former leaders of the Lithuanian camp who are now both deceased, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashiv and Rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman, decided that no new groups would join the system. Their directive continues to apply and is viewed as part of their last will and testament to the Lithuanian haredim.

Belz responded to Degel Hatorah’s refusal by turning to the government and requesting a solution, as it needed funding. The result became known as the “Belz Arrangement” – a new education model that was announced by the Finance and Education ministries in June.

The arrangement is that schools will receive funding for every student who has a passing grade in mathematics, English and Hebrew. The model is the first in haredi society in which funding is dependent on educational success in secular subjects. It is viewed by some as a groundbreaking step forward in the integration of haredim into Israeli society.

This is exactly what Degel Hatorah fears. The Lithuanian side views the new model as a threat to the independence of its education system – and consequently a threat to the independence of its way of life. The circulation of the Education Ministry’s call for proposal on August 25 served as an indication that the plan was moving forward. Hence, it was the straw that broke Degel Hatorah’s back.

The crisis has deepened to the extent that the two parties have not spoken to each other since last Thursday. Degel Hatorah even refused to meet opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who requested to serve as an intermediary between the two sides.

Another indication of the severity of the crisis was a report that Shas leader Arye Deri offered to reserve two spots in his list for representatives of Agudat Yisrael so that the party’s votes would not be wasted.

The party declined.

“Enough with the paternalism. We will run alone and pass the electoral threshold, with more votes than Degel Hatorah,” a senior Agudat Yisrael official was reported as saying on Saturday night.

Is there another solution possibly?

Another possible solution also requires some background.

Degel and Aguda signed an agreement prior to the March 2021 election, which was supposed to be valid for two Knesset terms. The agreement stipulated that in the 2021 election, Degel would receive the No. 1 spot on the Knesset list, and Aguda would receive the first choice of political appointment. During the following term, the opposite would occur: Aguda would receive the No. 1 spot, and Degel would get the first choice of position.

Degel’s leader, MK Moshe Gafni, indeed ended up leading the list during the last year. But since the party ended up in the opposition, his being No. 1 had no significance. This, coupled with Degel’s claim that its electorate is larger, led the Lithuanian party to demand that it retain the party leadership in the upcoming election as well.

What could end up happening is that Degel could give up on some of its demands in exchange for Aguda “punishing” Belz’s representative in the Knesset, MK Yisrael Eichler, by pushing him down to an unrealistic spot on the list. Eichler was No. 6 on UTJ’s list in the previous election, and the party is currently polling at six seats.

In yet another attempt at a solution, Netanyahu held numerous meetings in recent weeks with Agudat Yisrael leader Yitzhak Goldknopf, reportedly in an attempt to have Belz push off the implementation of the new education system until next year. This, however, would cost Belz millions of shekels of state funding, for which it would need to be compensated.

The two factions reportedly made some headway on Sunday by agreeing to form new negotiating teams.

In any case, the issue must be resolved by 10 p.m. on September 15, which is the deadline for parties to hand in their lists for the election. The crisis may go down to the wire, however, as there are other complex issues at play as well as other possible solutions.

In the end, Degel’s decision will be made by Rabbi Edelstein, and based on his firm stance against the Belz Arrangement, the two parties may end up running separately for the first time in 30 years.

The stakes are high, since if either do not pass the electoral threshold, this could end up hurting Netanyahu’s chances of forming a government and raise the chances of a government led by Prime Minister Yair Lapid or Defense Minister Benny Gantz.

Sources in the right-wing camp expressed their concern that Gafni was deepening the crisis intentionally to shoot down a Netanyahu-led government and then join Gantz, Channel 12 reported Saturday night. While Gafni denied the allegations, this could be a realistic scenario if the sides do not find a solution on time.