Anyone following the on-again off-again Israeli coalition negotiations over the past few weeks could be forgiven for developing a sense of vertigo. Rather than get involved in the daily posturings of all the various parties, I have chosen the approach of wake me when it’s over. It’s easier on the nerves and the digestion than being on a constant roller coaster ride.
By the time this piece appears in print, a new coalition involving any number of possible coalition partners might have been formed. Or then again, the negotiations might have fallen through entirely and Israel headed for new elections. Rather than make any predictions about where the die will be cast, I will content myself with analyzing how difficult and momentous are the issues facing the Torah leaders of the chareidi world as they guide the negotiations.
The impetus for United Torah Judaism entering the government is obvious. The chareidi community is suffering greatly at two levels from dramatic government budget cuts over the past year and a half. Large families have been hit hard by the cuts in child allowances that have already gone into effect, and they are living in terror of several further rounds of even larger cuts currently scheduled to take place over the next five years.
In addition, chareidi educational institutions, on all levels, from nursery schools to kollelim, have been subject to drastic cuts. Just last month, for instance, all non-government kindergartens were subjected to a 15% cut, while the government kindergartens were left untouched. Minister of Education Limor Livnat explained simply that her first responsibility is to the government school system. That discriminatory approach has been upheld by the Israeli Supreme Court.
The question is just how much UTJ would be likely to wrest from the Treasury in return for entering the government. The child allowance cuts to date are unlikely to be rescinded. But it might be possible to mitigate the impact of the cuts to come. At the same time, it must be remembered that the child allowance cuts form a very large portion of the Treasury’s strategy for meeting its deficit targets in the coming years. It is therefore unlikely that the scheduled cuts will be cancelled entirely.
Finance Minister Netanyahu prefers UTJ in the government to Labor because he fears Labor, with Histadrut Chairman Amir Peretz occupying a leading position, might try to scuttle his economic reforms entirely. UTJ has more focused and specific demands. But both Netanyahu and Sharon have staunchly resisted any concessions to Labor on the economic front – a position strongly supported by the anti-chareidi Shinui party – and there very real limits to what they will give the chareidi parties.
More can be hoped for in terms of restoring what everybody concedes have been the disproportionate cuts to chareidi educational institutions. And UTJ could probably succeed in having rescinded a number of regulations promulgated by the Education Ministry and the Justice Ministry that have made it far more difficult for yeshivos and kollelim to receive government funding and for new Torah institutions to be formed. One of the key demands of UTJ will be that the Education Ministry give up on its attempts to impose a core curriculum on chareidi elementary schools. While Sharon might concede on this point to achieve a coalition, the worth of the concession is subject to debate, because the Supreme Court has already involved itself in requiring a core curriculum and will doubtless do so again.
Another major achievement would be establishing fixed criteria for the funding of chareidi institutions and having that funding made a line item in the regular state budget. Today chareidi institutions are largely funded through special supplemental budgets, which are subject to constant monkey business, and require the continual exertion of political pressure to ensure that previous promises are kept. Whether the current negotiations can change the long entrenched system of budgeting chareidi organizations is far from clear.
AGAINST THE COMPELLING CHAREIDI INTEREST in entering the government, there are a number of countervailing factors, not the least of which being the prospect of sitting in the government with the anti-chareidi Shinui Party. Shinui will not give up on its demand for a civil marriage bill, and UTJ will not be able to stomach that. Meanwhile Sharon will not be eager to have Shinui outside the coaltion sniping at him on every issue, except the Gaza withdrawal.
In addition, it is unclear that UTJ can offer Sharon the one thing he wants from the party: support for his Gaza withdrawal proposal. Several weeks ago, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv was quoted in the chareidi press as saying that the Gaza withdrawal is a matter of pikuach nefesh and must be judged by itself, without any connection to any financial blandishments that might be offered. It is far from clear that any halachic decision has been reached on that issue as of yet. To enter the coalition, and then withdraw at the crucial moment of voting on the Gaza withdrawal would be to bring down the full force of Sharon’s wrath. The Prime Minister has proven himself over the years a very dangerous enemy.
Another factor that must be on the minds of the gedolei Torah is the impact of UTJ’s sanction for the Gaza withdrawal on relations with both the more religiously traditional elements within Likud and with the national religious. In 1990, Rav Shach, zt"l, announced at Yad Eliyahu stadium that Degel HaTorah would not join in a Labor-led government, and thereby brought to an end that particular "stinking maneuver" by Shimon Peres. One of his reasons was the value in maintaining a connection with the "amcha Yid" – the more traditional elements within the Likud. Those links would be severely tested by UTJ’s support of Gaza withdrawal.
The split created with the national religious world, especially the more observant ("hardal") elements of that world, would be almost irreparable. The elements of the national religious world closest to the chareidi world in religious observance and commitment to Torah learning also tend to be more connected to the settler movement. For the settlers, Gaza withdrawal is not just another issue; it is the issue.
The chareidi world might counter that for us Torah learning is the issue and that the National Religious Party chose to sit in a government with Shinui that greatly damaged the yeshivot. A fair debater’s point, perhaps, but not one likely to be heard.
Finally, entry into a coalition, especially one with Shinui, would reinforce some negative stereotypes of the chareidim – to wit that we are concerned only with money. Already last week various Likud and Shinui sources were quoted as saying that they preferred UTJ to Shas as a coalition partner because the former would be satisfied with a few hundred million more shekels for their institutions, without any larger ambitions to run the country.
The claim that the chareidim pursue only the narrow economic interests of their institutions and members is demonstrably false. Both in the second Rabin government and the Barak government, the chareidi parties stayed out of the government over matters of principle despite large financial blandishments offered to join the coalition. Nevertheless the stereotype remains. Indeed the period of chareidi absence from the seats of political power has had at least one benefit. The less prominent chareidi MKs are in the news, the easier it is to discuss Torah with traditional and secular Israelis, without the conversation becoming purely political.
Where the current negotiations will end up no one knows. But one thing is clear: Our leaders are faced with monumental choices involving the weighing of a large number of complex factors.