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Analysis

As the coalition teeters, UTJ appears to make its move, but it’s not what most think

Pundits speculate the Haredi party may be abandoning the opposition, but it says it’s sticking with the Likud-led bloc even as it appears to grow impatient with Netanyahu

Carrie Keller-Lynn

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

UTJ leader MK Moshe Gafni speaks at a Knesset plenum session on the state budget, on September 2, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
UTJ leader MK Moshe Gafni speaks at a Knesset plenum session on the state budget, on September 2, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Parliamentarians from the Haredi United Torah Judaism party have made no secret of their desire to return to power via a governing coalition of religious and right-wing parties, and they would like to do it without going through another round of elections.

UTJ is a part of Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s opposition alliance, but recent comments from party lawmakers hinting at the possibility of finding a more appropriate leader, and reports that UTJ head Moshe Gafni had secretly met with Defense Minister Benny Gantz, sparked speculation about a possible maneuver to reshuffle the Knesset without Netanyahu.

Yet UTJ has been steadfast in its messaging that its political alliance with Netanyahu’s Likud party is watertight. So is UTJ considering switching teams, or sticking with the current alliance?

The answer, it seems, is a little of both. While UTJ isn’t abandoning Netanyahu, it appears to be pushing him to put more elbow grease into overcoming personality driven-struggles, creating room for fences to be mended with other ideologically-aligned politicians and thus paving the way for the possibility of a new government.

On April 6, the morning that former coalition whip MK Idit Silman resigned from the coalition and destroyed the government’s slim majority, UTJ party leader Moshe Gafni’s office quickly put out a statement in his name that some analysts read as opening the door for a day after Netanyahu.

“The opposition needs to look inside itself to decide who is most worthy and who has the best chance of forming a government immediately without needing to go to elections,” the statement in Gafni’s name read.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz and UTJ MK Moshe Gafni attend a conference arranged by the Israeli Television News Company in Jerusalem, on March 7, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Gafni backtracked and disavowed the statement, but not before pundits began chattering and Likudniks started complaining.

Adding grist to the rumor mill, on Sunday, UTJ MK Yaakov Asher told Radio Kol Barama that Gantz was a “potential partner,” heaping compliments on the Blue and White party chief.

The next day, senior UTJ lawmaker Yitzhak Pindrus told Knesset TV that his party was lining up behind Netanyahu, but indicated that it was simply by dint of him being at the helm of the largest party of the opposition alliance.

Despite the attention they garnered in the Hebrew press, the statements are far from representing the opening salvos of a political revolution. Rather, they are consistent with UTJ’s long-held position: the Ashkenazi Haredi party’s watertight political alliance is with Likud — the party, not its leader.

Or as Pindrus put it: “If Likud decided to put a scarecrow in place instead of Netanyahu, we’d go with the scarecrow.”

But ingrained in the comments is recognition by the party that as long as Likud is led by Netanyahu, it will have a hard time building alliances to get them back in power unless he starts making some changes.

“They won’t get involved with internal Likud decision-making,” said Avi Grinzweig, a political consultant who has worked with UTJ lawmakers. “But they’re saying ‘maybe we need to do a gut check and see why this path hasn’t worked for them to this point.’”

UTJ MK Yitzhak Pindrus attends the Knesset House Committee’s hearing on declaring now-former Yamina MK Amichai Shikli a defector from his party, on April 25, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In a phone interview with The Times of Israel on Tuesday, Pindrus made clear that UTJ will only join an alternative coalition led by Likud  — “because at the end of the day, they have 30 candidates” — and will press for elections if no such arrangement is possible.

He dismissed the Likud’s choice of leader as an internal party issue but bemoaned the current political milieu, in which parties are bound not by ideology but allegiance or animus toward a single politician, Netanyahu, resulting in years of political gridlock and Israel now being governed by a lame-duck coalition of unlikely, and seemingly untenable, allies.

“The whole political problem that Israel came into the last two years, it comes from one thing, that everything became personal. And that’s what we’re trying to say,” he said.

With a realist’s resignation, Pindrus added that “we’re not going to get out of it.”

Netanyahu’s cult of personality has reverberated widely, energizing Likud into a towering political juggernaut but also tying its fate to his own, and turning the party into an enormous target for its political opponents. It is so intense that in the opposition’s language, the fault line dividing Israel’s political camps is no longer ideology but loyalty to Netanyahu and his bloc.

Personal antipathy toward Netanyahu the politician is also why Israel’s Knesset has an 80-seat ideological center-right-religious majority, but a political minority of 54 seats allied to him.

But, while the disputes between Netanyahu and various other ideologically aligned party heads may not be fully healed, Pindrus hopes they can be bandaged.

While saying that “Netanyahu has to take responsibility” for bridging divides, Pindrus put it on all key politicians to work on repairing relationships, so that a right-religious bloc can be formed within the existing Knesset map.

“What has to be solved now is the main issue, that it stops being personal. Find a way to get along with [Interior Minister Ayelet] Shaked or Gantz, [Justice Minister Gideon] Sa’ar, or whoever it is, to stop these personal issues going around,” he said.

“We’re saying it to both sides, but Netanyahu has to take responsibility to move these things aside and find a way to make a coalition with Sa’ar and Gantz. And if not, we’ll go for elections,” the lawmaker added.

Grinzweig noted that the UTJ-Likud alliance isn’t just the product of electoral math, but a political mind meld between ultra-Orthodox and right-wing bases in recent years.

“Haredim won’t break their covenant with the Likud for any reason. In addition to ideology, voters won’t go for it,” Grinzweig said.

Haredi political consultant Avi Grinzweig. (Courtesy)

“In the last few years we’ve created a political situation in which the religious [Zionist] and traditional [Likud] public walk hand-in-hand with Haredim,” said Grinzweig.

And these voters, Grinzweig said, “don’t want Haredim to go to a left-wing coalition. We go with the Likud as one package… They won’t break this covenant with the Likud.”

Much like Pindrus, Grinzweig stresses that UTJ’s covenant is with the Likud, not its leader.

“There won’t be a coalition with Haredim that doesn’t include the Likud. If the Likud will agree for someone else to lead it, then we’ll also agree,” he said.

But then what to make of the reports of Gafni meeting quietly with Gantz?

Given UTJ’s position, it seems less likely that Gafni is in a rush to torch the UTJ-Likud alliance. A more likely scenario would be that the parties are feeling out Gantz to get his position on a possible religious-right government.

“Haredi parties talk to everyone, they have long been in touch with Gantz,” said Grinzweig.

Gantz’s spokesperson declined to comment for this article.

The messy divorce between Gantz and Netanyahu might seem to put a possible reunion outside the realm of possibility. But Gantz has feuded with Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, and has a reputation as a political wildcard. His ideology can be vague and difficult to suss out, but he has sat in government with both far-right and Haredi parties.

“There’s always been an attempt to bring Gantz in. He isn’t exactly right-wing, but he can block the formation of a government,” Grinzweig said.

The contours of a possible alternate government should the opposition manage to pry Gantz and his Blue and White faction free are clear: The current pro-Netanyahu opposition bloc of Likud (29 seats), Shas (9), Religious Zionism (7) and UTJ (7), plus Blue and White (8), New Hope (6), and ideological defectors from Yamina for a coalition of at least 69 seats. The major missing piece of the puzzle would be how to reconcile power and personal divisions between Netanyahu and Gantz, not to mention deep grievances between Sa’ar and Netanyahu.

There are other hurdles too, including many parties’ reluctance to work with Religious Zionism’s Itamar Ben Gvir or other members of the far-right party.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz gives a press conference at IDF Central Command headquarters, on March 30, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Plus, Grinzweig says, the Haredi parties will have some demands as well, including backpedaling initiatives enacted or put in play by members of the current government.

“There are a few things that bother Haredim. Some are related to money: [outlawed] disposable dishes, [restricting subsidies for] childcare. The bigger issues are religious: kashrut, rabbis, conversion, army enlistment,” Grinzweig said.

The list goes on and on.

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