Could haredi COVID-19 non-compliance lead to Netanyahu’s downfall?

Hard core Likud voters won't defect if the main election issue is Netanyahu, but what if it's the haredi sector?

Ultra-Orthodox men scuffle with Israeli police as they protest against the coronavirus restrictions in Jerusalem on January 25, 2021.  (photo credit: FLASH90)
Ultra-Orthodox men scuffle with Israeli police as they protest against the coronavirus restrictions in Jerusalem on January 25, 2021.
(photo credit: FLASH90)
Last week it was a mass haredi (ultra-Orthodox) wedding in Bnei Brak, this week it is mass funerals for haredi rabbis in Jerusalem. The average Israeli – in lockdown at home for a month with children learning remotely on Zoom, unable to go to a restaurant, unable to fly abroad – sees these images and feels the blood boiling.
What makes the images even worse is the sense that no one can do anything about it: not the government, nor the police.
It is as if certain sectors of the haredi community can do whatever they want, violate the regulations thereby spreading the coronavirus, spit in the face of national solidarity – and no one has the power to stop it. Not the government, because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – seven weeks before an election – cannot alienate the haredi parties, which are essential if he is to form another government; and not the police, because they take their cues from the government.
This sense of exasperation was compounded on Sunday night when Channel 13 broadcast commentary from the radical haredi Jerusalem faction reporting on Sunday’s funeral of Rabbi Meshulam Dovid Soloveitchik: “The funeral procession is taking place this afternoon with more than 100,000 people, crowded, in mourning, without masks or other nonsense – and all that with the police not daring to get close and bother the funeral procession,” the speaker said in a tone triumphant.
But this “triumph” may be short lived, and – paradoxically – those at the funeral procession who were crowded closely together, many without masks, in complete violation of regulations that everyone is supposed to abide by may actually be paving the way for change in how the state deals with the haredi community. The total disregard and even contempt for the country’s laws that was on display at the funeral procession may boomerang against the haredi parties in the next election.
People watching those images may well have thought that the only way to impact on the behavior of those at that funeral is to vote in a manner that will keep the haredi parties out of next government. If the instances of some segments of the haredi public demonstratively – some argue provocatively – flouting the regulations continue, this could very well turn into the key emotional issue that voters take with them into the voting booth on March 23.
Yamina’s Naftali Bennett, unlike Yisrael Beytneu’s Avigdor Liberman and Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid, has not run anti-haredi campaigns in the past, even though Bennett and Lapid joined together in 2013 to form a coalition with Netanyahu that kept the haredim in the opposition. While Bennett is a strong advocate of greater integration of haredim into the workforce and Israeli society, he has never made an anti-haredi plank part of his party’s identity to the same degree that this issue has defined Yesh Atid and, more recently, Yisrael Beytenu.
On Monday, however, he apparently eyed an opening and tweeted: “Netanyahu has turned the haredi politicians from partners to owners of the state. In the government that we set up, I will turn that around. The government will be subordinate to all citizens who will be the owners, and the haredim can be partners.”
Bennett, who just two weeks ago penned an op-ed that appeared on the Arutz Sheva website under the headline “Lapid and Liberman, stop inciting; the haredim are our brothers,” apparently understands that the mass haredi coronavirus disobedience is turning into a very salient issue for the upcoming elections.
Last February, before the last election, Bennett got into some trouble with the haredi parties when he was quoted as saying at an election event that the haredi parties were comfortable coalition partners because they were willing to go along with government policies on diplomatic, security and economic issues as long as their institutions were funded. In the brouhaha that followed, Yamina issued an apology saying that Bennett was quoted out of context, and that he “works in cooperation with ultra-Orthodox [politicians] and greatly values the ultra-Orthodox public. There was no intention of offending, and we apologize if anyone is hurt.”
Fast forward a year and Bennett essentially said in his tweet that the haredi parties need to be taken down a peg. It is doubtful if this time his party will issue an apology. Rather, this tweet is an indication of where Bennett sees the political winds blowing.
HARD-CORE Likud voters have shown that they are not willing to defect from the party if the main election issue is Netanyahu, his corruption trial and whether he is fit to govern. Despite the constant drumbeat of “Netanyahu is corrupt” that has defined the last three elections, the Likud faithful rallied around Netanyahu, with the party picking up 35 seats in the election of April 2019, 32 in September of that year, and 36 in the latest election last March. The indictments have not had an impact on the Likud’s base.
But what if the issue is not Netanyahu, but rather the non-compliance of part of the haredi community? What if the state's relationship with the haredim becomes the main issue in the campaign? Then might some of the Likud faithful jump ship to parties saying that the time has come to form a government without the haredi parties, something Netanyahu is unwilling and unable to do?
Thirty Knesset seats has long been considered the Likud’s floor and the scope of Netanyahu’s base, and over the last week that is the average number of seats the party has received in six major polls. But the party has fallen under that number three times in the past two decades, winning only 19 seats in 1999, when Ehud Barak defeated Netanyahu; 12 in 2006, after Ariel Sharon formed Kadima and 27 in 2009, when Netanyahu lost to Kadima’s Tzipi Livni in the election, but succeeded in putting together a coalition when she failed – primarily because the haredi parties much preferred a coalition with Likud rather than with Kadma.
Today anger at the government’s inability to take action against haredim who are disregarding the coronavirus regulations could very well be the issue that may drive some voters away from the Likud, especially if this high-profile non-compliance continues in the weeks before the election. And even if this amounts to just one or two seats, it could have severe repercussions on Netanyahu’s ability to form a government, and the haredi parties’ ability to be a part of one.
Those haredi activists who now feel that the country can do nothing to stop them may wake up in April to a new political reality in which their actions played a major role in keeping haredi parties out of the government. And if that scenario plays itself out, the government will likely be much less forbearing and tolerant toward those haredim who refuse to play by the rules governing everyone else.