Coalitionscape: Old partnership hopes to turn back time.

Shas and UTJ are seeking landmark concessions in negotiations with Kadima.

anshel 88 (photo credit: )
anshel 88
(photo credit: )
Behind the scenes of the Kadima-Labor struggle over the Finance and Education portfolios and the future of the minimum wage, there is a much quieter set of negotiations going on between Interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's representatives and the two haredi parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism. Neither of the parties will be asking for high-profile portfolios - UTJ will make do with only the chairmanship of the Knesset Finance Committee and a couple of deputy ministerships - but some of the other concessions they are seeking might have a profound effect on lives of ordinary Israelis, religious and secular. What the haredim are trying to do is, as one of their negotiators put it, to effectively "turn the clock back" to three years ago, before Ariel Sharon banished the Likud's permanent coalition partners in favor of ultra-secular Shinui. From the wilderness of opposition they saw how the government went about dismantling the Religious Affairs Ministry, slashing budgets for yeshivot and changing the guidelines for child benefits so that they no longer favored large, mainly haredi, families. Shas and UTJ's list of demands from Olmert include redrawing the benefit guidelines, once more reducing the benefits for a family's first, second and third children and boosting once again the benefits received by multiple-child families. They want coalition support for a new law bolstering the prerogative of Rabbinical courts to rule in financial issues pertaining to divorce cases after the High Court ruled two weeks ago that they had no legal right to do so. They also want assurances that no advances would be made towards an Israeli constitution, long a haredi anathema; that no steps be taken to force yeshiva students into IDF service; and that no conversions made by Conservative and Reform Rabbis be officially recognized. They also hope to in effect revive the Religious Affairs Ministry by appointing a deputy minister in the Prime Minister's Office in charge of religious services. The reason that few of these demands have made headlines so far is that, while the talks between Amir Peretz and Olmert are taking place mainly in the press, the negotiations with Shas and UTJ are between a small number of political veterans: MK Ya'acov Litzman, attorney David Glass and Olmert's trusted aide Ovad Yehezkel. The three have met before, numerous times, in Jerusalem's City Hall. Olmert owed his 1993 election victory in the capital to the haredi community and, as mayor, reciprocated with central positions for his partners in the municipal apparatus and budgets for haredi education. The Likud-haredi alliance forged by Olmert served Binyamin Netanyahu well in his 1996 elections victory-by-a-nose. The Shas and UTJ leaderships are hoping that, as part of turning the clock back, they are going to get the old Olmert back. They remember all too well that it was the same Olmert who, in 2003, brokered the deal between NRP and Shinui at Sharon's bidding, excluding the ultra-Orthodox parties from the coalition. So which Olmert are we going to get? It's still too early to give a definite answer, but the haredi representatives seem confident of a return of the good old pliant Ehud who stood up in Rabbi Ovadya Yosef's synagogue and promised "a real partnership with the help of God." There are three main reasons for this confidence. First, despite the fact that he can form a coalition without them, their inclusion is of great use to him since it automatically lowers the price that Peretz can extract in coalition talks, as Labor has only one MK more than Shas and UTJ combined. Second, the haredi politicians have learned to couch their demands in palatable economics. Changing child benefits in their favor or adding allocations for yeshivas can be done simply by reallocating funds within the budget without enlarging the deficit - which definitely cannot be said for Peretz's minimum-wage and compulsory-pension demands. But perhaps the biggest attraction for Olmert is that, the moment he has the ultra-Orthodox within his coalition alongside Avigdor Lieberman's Israel Beiteinu, he's whittled down the right-wing opposition to a mere 21 MKs, taking away the claim that there is no Jewish majority for further pullbacks in the West Bank. On the other hand, if Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak's experiences are anything to go by, coalition agreements aren't enough. When push comes to shove, Olmert might find his old friends mysteriously missing from the crucial vote.