Haredim reach out to Netanyahu [p. 7]

Opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu, whose aggressively free market, small government economic policies rankled the haredi community was invited to speak at a major conference of haredi local government politicians that begins Tuesday. As finance minister, Netanyahu pushed for shrinking the nation's government sector via privatization of state-owned companies, deregulation and sharp cuts in welfare transfers. Many haredi families, who tend to be much larger than average Israeli families, were hard hit by the reductions in child allowances. Reversal of these cuts in child allowances has been a central demand of United Torah Judaism as a precondition for joining the government coalition. Shas's election campaign focused almost exclusively on economic issues. The Sephardi haredi political party promised its constituents that it would work to restore child allowances to their original levels. Netanyahu was targeted by both Shas and UTJ as the archetypical nemesis of large haredi families and a compassionate welfare state. But the child allowances have not been restored and Shas has only obtained a promise that they will be increased the following year. A senior haredi official said the haredim were angry at Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for not supporting their pet issues and that consequently, Netanyahu could regain the support of the haredim, who backed his prime ministerial campaigns in 1996 and 1999. "The haredim are more mad at Olmert now than Bibi," the official said. "They see that Olmert didn't fix anything. Bibi can definitely get their support." Netanyahu's spokesman Ophir Akunis said he believed haredim understood that he had no choice but to cut the child allowances because the government could no longer afford to pay them. He said Netanyahu was trying to increase support for the Likud from various sectors, including the haredim. "There are haredim who don't vote for haredi parties," Akunis said. "Of course we would be very happy to get support from the haredi community." Netanyahu reached out to new audiences by starting a blog, but that approach would not work with the haredim. Betar Illit mayor, Yitzhak Pindrus, one of the main organizers of the conference, said in an interview with the religious Radio Kol Chai station that Netanyahu's invitation was just another example of the haredi community's political realism. "In our day to day work as local government officials we have to cooperate with all types of politicians, including with those who do not share our views," said Pindrus. "Just because we do not share the same opinions does not mean we cannot talk." Pindrus's spokesman said that Netanyahu was approached after Olmert said he could not attend. There are between 250 and 300 haredi politicians, about 12 percent of the total, on the local government level. The number of haredim in local government has gradually risen over the years. In 2003 they represented only 8% of the total number of local government politicians.