At this stage it is still too early to know whether or not Tommy Lapid’s Shinui party will be part of the governing coalition. The chances, however, look better by the day.
Given Shinui’s professed refusal to sit together with chareidi parties in one coalition, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s ability to lure Shinui into the coalition depends on one of two scenarios. The first would be the creation of an entirely secular coalition of Likud, Labor and Shinui. Labor, however, continues to hold out, and it does not appear that the party will be joining a Sharon-led coalition in the immediate future, at least not unless the outbreak of war in neighboring Iraq provides a fig leaf for doing so.
Far more likely at present appears to be a coalition of Likud, Shinui, and National Religious. The National Religious Party has shown a great deal more eagerness to compromise with Shinui on issues of state and religion than most observers originally thought possible. Already NRP negotiators have indicated that they would be flexible on the issue of civil marriage for those who bear some kind of halachic infirmity to marriage (which group includes hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the FSU). Once the door of civil marriage is opened, few believe it will be limited to those barred from marrying halachically. NRP has also been receptive to Shinui’s demands for reopening the issue of the draft of yeshiva students.
Of even greater concern than Shinui’s participation in the coalition, however, is the fact that Prime Minister Sharon has been speaking since election night as if he himself were a member of Shinui. He has repeated numerous times his intention of dismantling the Ministry of Religions, through which much of the funding to yeshivos flows, and spoken of the necessity of drastic cuts in the budget for yeshivos. He has also indicated that despite having passed the Tal Bill, which for the first time formalized the yeshiva draft deferment, in his first term, he is open to major changes in the law in the next Knesset.
In addition, he has expressed his determination to press forward with the drafting of a constitution – a move feared by all the religious parties. He appointed to head the Likud Knesset delegation and as one of his chief coalition negotiators Gidon Saar. Saar previously worked in the State Prosecutor’s office, and he has strongly opposed all attempts to reform the method of judicial selection.
In short, not only has Sharon veered sharply to the left in his expressed positions on the peace process, he has also bought into major elements of the legislative agenda of the anti-religious and Left-wing parties. That dramatic shift is explained by the confluence of two factors. Ever the brilliant political tactician, Sharon now sees the chance to turn the Likud into Israel’s consensus party in much the same way that Mapai once was. He has located himself firmly in the middle on the central security issue. He has isolated Labor and Meretz, who cannot let go of the discredited Oslo process, to his Left. At the same time, he has pointedly refused to enter into a coalition with the hard Right, which rejects a Palestinian state. The parties of the Left and hard Right that he has succeeded in isolating, together with the Arab parties, constitute only a third of the Knesset.
At the same time, Sharon has co-opted all the other issues that the Left might ever use against him. It is doubtful that he has spent five minutes in the last year thinking about a written constitution or the method of judicial selection. But if by adopting the Left’s position on this issue, he can present himself to the gentry of Ramat Aviv as having risen above the hoi polloi of Machane Yehudah chanting, ``Ariel, King of Israel," why not?
There is another factor operating here. Sharon knows that this is his last term as Prime Minister, and he is concerned about his historical legacy. He knows – Israel being Israel -- that his legacy will be largely determined by leftist journalists and professors. Sharon wishes to be remembered as a statesman, not as the populist rabble rouser of Likud Central Committee meetings. To do so, he has begun courting the media by adopting their line on issues of less immediate concern to him – e.g., the judicial system.
Even though the media lacks credibility with much of the public, it still has the power to intimidate right-wing politicians, who are naturally sensitive to what is written and said about them in the media. Likud politicians typically suffer from Stockholm syndrome when it comes to the press. They have read so many times that all intelligent people are on the Left that they have come to believe it. In some cases the inferiority complex is well merited, but even the brighter among the Likud Knesset members instinctively shy away from positions that they know will draw fire from ``right-thinking" figures in the media.
The hardline that Sharon has adopted so far in negotiations with the chareidi parties owes a great deal to his desire to adopt the consensus position – i.e., the anti-chareidi position – and to free the Likud from the image of being in the shackles of the right-wing and religious parties.
But whether Sharon means us well or good, whether he has a warm spot in his heart for Yiddishkeit, as we convinced ourselves for so many years, or not, is only part of the uncertain future that looms ahead as far as the chareidi population is concerned.
The disastrous state of the economy points to budgetary cuts that will hit the chareidi world very hard. Though those cuts might be less deep if we were more popular, they are to some extent inevitable. Much of the Shinui economic plan for the chareidi population will likely be enacted regardless of whether Shinui is in the government.
The recently enacted 2003 budget has already proven to be wildly overly optimistic in its projections, and economists now predict between 12- 14 billion shekels more will have to be cut from the budget. Though budgetary deficits do not generally appear until the latter half of the year, already in January government expenditures exceeded revenues by nearly three billion shekels. (In 2001 and 2002 there were healthy
surpluses in January.)
Globalization has removed the option of running large deficits. Poor nations regularly have to submit to austerity plans dictated by the International Monetary Fund in order to receive desperately needed loans. But even advanced industrial nations are severely limited in their flexibility with respect to budgets. The European Community, for instance, imposes hefty fines on any member nation whose budget deficit exceeds 3%.
Most relevant from Israel’s point of view is the fact that international credit rating agencies would further downgrade Israel’s rating were the budget deficit to exceed 3%. Such a downgrade would wreak economic havoc by making credit more expensive for Israeli companies, which are already closing at the rate of 30,000 per year.
Do not expect any of the additional cuts to come from military budget, which has already been dangerously pared down. All training exercises for reservists have been cancelled for the coming year, a particularly worrisome move in a country whose defense forces are so heavily dependent on reservists.
Though large savings might be made by pruning the bloated public sector and cutting public sector wages, neither is likely to happen. Mass government firings when unemployment is already at 11% are not politically feasible, and the Histadrut can be counted to fight any firings or wage cuts with a series of crippling public sector strikes.
That leaves transfer payments, such as child support allowances, which today compromise over 30% of the budget, as the major area left for budget cuts.
Drastic cuts in child allowances can thus be expected unless the economy experiences an unforeseen turn around. Large chareidi families will be hit very hard by these cuts under any circumstances, and even more so if the next Finance Minister attempts to make the cuts more politically palatable by discriminating against children whose fathers have not served in the IDF.
Just as individual family incomes can be expected to plummet in the chareidi community, other basic costs, like tuition, can be expected to rise due to cuts in the chareidi education budget. Just last week, the Attorney- General ordered the Religions Ministry to cease transferring 300 million shekels to yeshiva ketanos in the next school year.
Responding to the socio-economic and political forces arrayed against us will require all the wisdom of our great leaders. It may also require the development of a professional organization in Israel along the lines of Agudath Israel of America to aid the gedolei Yisrael in their crucial decisions by providing the necessary information and analysis. But that is a subject for another day.