Analysis'We are reaching the end of the road'

Failure of ‘Rabbis Bill’ shatters Haredi trust in PM, putting coalition on thin ice

After Likud MKs rebel over contentious measure, ultra-Orthodox lawmakers accuse Netanyahu of being unable to keep party in line, doubt he can deliver on IDF draft bill

Sam Sokol

Sam Sokol is the Times of Israel's political correspondent. He was previously a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz. He is the author of "Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews"

United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni, center, speaks alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Shas party leader Aryeh Deri, at the Knesset in Jerusalem on January 23, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni, center, speaks alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Shas party leader Aryeh Deri, at the Knesset in Jerusalem on January 23, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s late-night decision to remove a highly contentious bill bolstering the state-backed rabbinate from the Knesset agenda has shattered the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties’ faith in his ability to advance their interests, threatening the stability of his increasingly narrow governing coalition.

The Shas-backed bill — which would have dramatically expanded the Chief Rabbinate’s authority over the appointment of municipal rabbis — generated intense pushback from Likud lawmakers, with MKs Moshe Saada and Tally Gotliv promising to vote against it in the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee.

After initially moving to boot the two from the committee in favor of more compliant lawmakers, Netanyahu backtracked due to his inability to guarantee its passage. The move angered Shas, whose leader Aryeh Deri had reportedly threatened to bring down the government if the legislation was not brought to a vote.

“There is no coalition, there is no discipline, and the most frustrating thing is that Likud is a party made up of 35 separate factions,” one Shas official told national broadcaster Kan, warning that “the complete dissolution of the coalition is only a matter of time.”

In a subsequent statement, Shas declared that Saada and Gotliv’s actions were “undermining the foundations of the coalition.”

If passed into law, the so-called Rabbis Bill could cost taxpayers tens of millions of shekels annually in salaries for hundreds of new neighborhood rabbis employed by local municipalities. Critics of the bill charge that it would benefit the Shas party by providing jobs for its apparatchiks, who wield wide influence over the state-funded rabbinate.

Likud MKs Tally Gotliv, left, and Moshe Saada attend a Constitution, Law and Justice Committee meeting in the Knesset in Jerusalem, June 18, 2024; they both expressed opposition to the so-called “Rabbis Bill.” (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

According to the Israel Hayom daily, during a phone call Tuesday night, Deri accused Netanyahu of losing control over his party, telling the prime minister that Likud’s legislators “do whatever they want.”

“Either there is a coalition or there isn’t,” Deri said, adding that “there has not been a government as bad for the ultra-Orthodox public” as the current one throughout the entire history of the state.

Netanyahu’s inability to advance the measure has led to concerns among ultra-Orthodox lawmakers that he would be similarly unable to ensure the passage of a bill on mandatory military enlistment now being debated in the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

If eventually approved, the measure would lower the current age of exemption from mandatory service for Haredi yeshiva students from 26 to 21 and “very slowly” increase the rate of ultra-Orthodox conscription. Critics of the measure say it would essentially enshrine Haredi exemptions from military service repeatedly struck down by Israel’s highest courts.

Economy Minister Nir Barkat became the second senior member of Likud on Wednesday to say he would vote against the bill without “fundamental changes.”

Shas party leader MK Aryeh Deri, at his home in Jerusalem, on April 15, 2024. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

Since the resignation of Benny Gantz’s National Unity party from the government last week, Netanyahu’s ruling coalition has held only 64 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, a slim margin that has left his hold on power dependent on keeping all of its constituent parties happy.

Should Shas take its 11 seats to the opposition, or UTJ’s seven-seat strong faction walk, new elections would likely ensue. While Netanyahu managed with the 64-strong majority for his first 10 months in power (and has survived with even smaller margins of error), now he is liable to face an electorate that could be eager to punish him and his allies for the failures of October 7 and its aftermath.

Speaking with The Times of Israel on Wednesday, United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Roth said that Netanyahu’s about-face the previous evening highlighted the fact that the government had failed to live up to “many” of the promises made to UTJ when it agreed to join the Likud-led coalition in late 2022.

The coalition has “procrastinated constantly” on issues ranging from educational budgets to military exemptions, pushed off first because of the government’s judicial overhaul push and later due to the war with Hamas.

“None of the agreements are being kept,” Roth said, claiming that “Likud doesn’t see UTJ as an equal partner in the coalition.”

“UTJ has lost its trust and its will to be a part of this coalition. Right now I can’t tell you what will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back but we are definitely close to that. The question is will the Likud be able to deliver,” Roth asked. “That is the only question and we’ve had enough, more than enough, of procrastinating and that’s why we are reaching the end of the road.”

“Maybe in the future we will make agreements with the left and not with Likud,” he added.

United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Roth attends a party faction meeting in the Knesset, November 21, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Even amid seething anger and distrust in Netanyahu felt by Haredi politicians, it is unlikely they would jeopardize the coalition so long as they can see the military enlistment bill through to passage.

Many ultra-Orthodox Jews see the state’s attempts to regulate Haredi conscription into the military as an existential issue, and would not abandon their hopes of passing a bill keeping most exemptions in place just to punish Netanyahu over his inability to pad the rabbinate.

Even after the government slashed yeshiva funds in March in line with a High Court order, Haredi parties stayed in the coalition, with Roth arguing at the time that as long as the enlistment issue remained in play, there was “no actual benefit” to quitting.

However, with the Rabbis Bill failing and many in Likud vowing to oppose blanket draft exemptions, the foremost question in the minds of Haredi leaders now will be whether Netanyahu is actually able to fulfill any of his promises to them, and whether, in fact, their alliance with him still makes political sense.

Most Popular
read more: