Reporter's notebook

Excluded and threatened, ultra-Orthodox MKs turn bitter

Branding the new coalition shameful, evil and un-Jewish, Shas and United Torah Judaism quickly get the hang of feisty opposition politics

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Benjamin Netanyahu seen with Shas's Eli Yishai (back right) and United Torah Judaism's Yaakov Litzman (foreground) in the Knesset on March 18, 2013. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Benjamin Netanyahu seen with Shas's Eli Yishai (back right) and United Torah Judaism's Yaakov Litzman (foreground) in the Knesset on March 18, 2013. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90)

On Wednesday afternoon, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu read out the details of his new government, prior to a lengthy debate and the eventual swearing in of its ministers, the members of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party demonstrated just how bitterly they resent being left out of the coalition: They got up and walked out of the plenum.

Over the hours of ensuing debate, they returned to the chamber, and several of them — along with their colleagues from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party — took the opportunity to walk to the podium and denounce a government they variously described as un-Jewish, anti-Jewish, shameful, evil and heartless.

At the end of his speech, UTJ’s Moshe Gafni went so far as to rip up what he said were copies of the coalition agreements, echoing Chaim Herzog in New York with the UN’s Zionism is Racism resolution. Talk about sore losers.

Shas and United Torah Judaism are accustomed to their places in government, and fully expected to keep them in Netanyahu’s third term. Netanyahu did his best, but his other coalition partners would not be moved. Worse, the centrist Yesh Atid and the right-wing Jewish Home parties forced him to agree — in principle, at least — to a new law that would abolish the blanket draft exemptions for yeshiva students.

Netanyahu has pledged to try to find a way, somehow, to include the Haredim in the government at a later stage. But on Monday, portraying themselves as shunned outcasts, they did not look like they planned to wait quietly for the prime minister to grace them with a phone call. In fact, they seemed to take to the art of feisty opposition politics with alacrity.

At the end of the debate, when the Knesset secretary asked each of the 120 MKs to vote “in favor” or “against” the new government, even the most strident opponents of Netanyahu and Jewish Home chairman Naftali Bennett, such as the Hadash (Communist) MK Dov Khenin or the Balad MK Hanin Zoabi, made do with a simple “against.” Several of the Haredi MKs, though, felt the need to add a little commentary. “Against this evil government,” yelled one. “Against a government that declared war on the Haredim,” shouted another.

Gafni, in his furious address, declared that, “We believe that we (the Jewish people) exist only because of the merit of Torah, since we stood at Mount Sinai. Without the Torah, we wouldn’t be here in Israel.” He slammed the coalition agreements for outrageously discriminating against the ultra-Orthodox, and said the plans for drafting the ultra-Orthodox have not been thought through properly and are unworkable.

What most grieved him and his colleagues, said Gafni, was that they had been “boycotted” — ruled unacceptable, by the Jewish Home and Yesh Atid. And if Yesh Atid were seen as mainly secular centrists, and thus hardly empathetic to the ultra-Orthodox, the stance of Bennett and his Orthodox, pro-settlement party was harder to swallow.

Recent days have seen a number of vague threats from Haredi circles to “expose” where government money goes — the settlements — and to work to depict the settlers as the real “burden” on society because of their security needs. But Haredi MKs steered away from those threats Monday.

On the sidelines of the plenum ceremony, UTJ’s Yisrael Eichler told The Times of Israel that “The person who caused a schism between the groups is Naftali Bennett. But he won’t succeed — the Haredi public and the settlement movement will remain united.”

There’ll be no one to ruin the new government photo with a beard or a skullcap, sneered Shas’s Deri. ‘Great achievement. Treasure the picture’

From the podium, meanwhile, Shas’s Aryeh Deri was also sounding off bitterly — and his target was not only Netanyahu’s new partners, but also the prime minister himself. His party negotiated with Netanyahu’s representatives in good faith, Deri said, and would have been ready to agree to a significant increase in the number of yeshiva students being drafted. Unfortunately, it soon became clear that the goal of the coalition was to exclude the ultra-Orthodox.

“There’ll be no one there with a beard or a skullcap” to ruin the picture of the new government, taken at the President’s Residence after the swear-in. “Great achievement,” Deri said sarcastically. “Treasure the picture.”

The Haredim weren’t the ones siphoning off undeserved money, he claimed. “The little they get is less than they deserve.”

It wasn’t all Haredi anger at the podium. The ultra-Orthodox MKs’ new opposition partners from Labor got in heavily on the act as well. Early in the debate, Labor’s Shelly Yachimovich gave a strikingly angry speech, attacking Netanyahu and his partners for their heartless economic and social policies, and their refusal to recognize the imperative for progress with the Palestinians. Netanyahu had negotiated with her in good faith, she acknowledged, but never for a moment did he allow himself to consider that, perhaps, some of his policies might be misguided.

“This government gave all the power to the settlers, therefore there will not be here any kind of peace process,” Labor MK Avishay Braverman told The Times of Israel soon afterward. “There might be something that will look like an effort to restart talks, but nothing’s going to happen on the diplomatic front.”

The 33rd government will enact decrees that will hurt both the middle class and the weaker segments of society, since no fundamental tax reform and no major cuts in the nation’s defense budget are in sight, Braverman added. For this he blamed the “oligarchs who rule Israel.”

In the chamber, the new ruling parties were predictably unfazed by all the attacks. Likud’s Gilad Erdan took Yachimovich to task for having slammed the coalition parties as “thirsty and rich.” Netanyahu, Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid, Bennett and Hatnua’s Tzipi Livni, she had said, are all “capitalists” from “well-connected families,” who know no financial worries. Neither do you, Erdan replied, citing Yachimovich’s (not particularly high) monthly salary of NIS 56,000 ($15,000). Surely her assistants make much less than that, he added, rather weakly.

Yesh Atid, too, hit back, denying it was a party for the well-off. “We fought for three ministries that are not talking about the rich: social welfare, health, and education. No one ever fought so hard for the education portfolio in the history of Israeli coalitions,” Yesh Atid MK Adi Koll told The Times of Israel. “People told us we’re crazy to take the Welfare Ministry, because it’s a lose-lose situation; you can never solve all the problems. But we took all the tough ministries.”

Besides pushing for drafting the Haredim and teaching a secular “core curriculum” in state-funded Haredi schools, Yesh Atid was also taking pride in the reduced size of the coalition. While the 32nd government had 30 ministers, the new one only has 23, Netanyahu included. A smaller cabinet saves millions of shekels, party officials argued.

But in their improbable new partnership with Labor, the Haredim savaged that claim too. The outgoing cabinet of 30 has been replaced by one with 22 ministers and eight deputies, Shas’s Ya’akov Margi noted. Do the math, he urged.

Deri also ridiculed Lapid’s talk of a leaner government, saying that besides a smaller table in the plenum, nothing was accomplished. “You didn’t save any money,” he said, claiming that deputy ministers today cost just as much ministers.

But if the Haredi claims about being turned into outcasts had some resonance, the assertion that the new government is no leaner than its predecessor was harder to validate. Yes, the incoming coalition has a total of 31 ministers and deputy ministers. But the last coalition actually had nine deputy ministers, for a grand total of 39. Still, on a high-passion day like Monday, Shas wasn’t about to let the arithmetic get in the way of its argument.

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