Shas, UTJ join forces for coalition negotiations

Housing shortage makes building portfolio particularly attractive for haredi parties.

netanyahu 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
netanyahu 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Shas and United Torah Judaism are planning to work together in government coalition negotiations, Shas chairman Eli Yishai announced Thursday. "We are working together to be partners in a stable government on the basis of common principles shared by both parties," said Yishai at the beginning of a faction meeting held in the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry. Yishai added that the two parties would cooperate to protect common interests such as budgets for haredi educational institutions and maintaining the religious status quo on issues such as marriages and conversions. MK Moshe Gafni, No. 2 on the UTJ list, also confirmed that Shas and UTJ would join forces. "We did something similar in coalition negotiations with [outgoing Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert," said Gafni. "In the end we remained in the opposition because we did not receive our demands for enlarged child allotments, while Shas decided to break up the partnership with us and join the government." The two parties making up UTJ - Degel Hatorah and Agudat Yisrael - were split on the extent of the cooperation between Shas and UTJ. Agudat Yisrael supported forming a voting bloc with Shas, while Degel Hatorah supported a less formal framework that would give the two parties more leeway. In the end, Degel Hatorah's proposal was adopted. Gafni said that unlike Shas, UTJ had not yet decided whether to support a government headed by Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu or by Kadima leader Tzipi Livni. A common enemy - Israel Beiteinu - has also united Shas and UTJ, which have a history of bumpy relations. Both parties are concerned that the religious status quo will be upset in a coalition in which Avigdor Lieberman's party is dominant. Israel Beiteinu is pushing to bust the Chief Rabbinate's monopoly over marriages in Israel by promoting legislation that would recognize a form of civil marriage called "partnership unions." Shas and UTJ have warned that the move would result in intermarriage between Israeli citizens who are not Jewish according to Orthodox standards. Lieberman's party is also advancing a proposal that would make citizenship contingent on either IDF service or national service. The proposal, termed "no loyalty, no citizenship" is aimed primarily at Israeli Arabs who do not serve in the IDF and refuse to do any form of national service. But the proposal also has an impact on haredim. The majority of haredi men and all haredi women oppose doing army service for religious and ideological reasons. Meanwhile, as part of the coalition negotiations, both Shas and UTJ have a strong interest in receiving the Construction and Housing portfolio, along with the Israel Lands Administration. Gafni said that for his party, the Construction and Housing portfolio was "very important, no less important than [the post of] chairman of the Finance Committee." Shas, which has said its first priority is the Interior Ministry, is also demanding the portfolio. Ya'acov Eichler, a veteran haredi journalist and a news commentator for the Knesset Channel 99, estimated that Shas probably would not receive the Interior Ministry since Israel Beiteinu's David Rotem wanted it. In recent years rising construction costs, coupled with a credit crunch and a lack of new housing projects, have resulted in a major housing shortage. One of the hardest hit by the shortage has been the haredi community, with its high birth rate. "Any haredi politician who manages to succeed in alleviating the terrible housing shortage will become a major hero of the haredi community," said haredi PR man Moshe Freedman. "Four thousand haredi couples are married each year. These people need cheap housing and they are not finding it." Israel Eichler, a former haredi MK who was No. 6 on the UTJ list, said that in many cities throughout the nation, mayors were blocking building projects designated for the haredi population. "This is the only country in the Western world that discriminates against Jews because they are haredi," said Eichler. A UTJ source said that the Construction and Housing portfolio was also attractive because it enabled a haredi politician to advance the interests of his own constituency while also helping other groups in Israeli society suffering from the housing shortage. "In the present economic situation, it will be difficult for the haredi parties to demand bigger budgets for yeshivot or more child allotments. But if we can cut the high taxes on housing, it would benefit everyone and also stimulate the economy."