The new government sworn in on May 17 is a groundbreaking creation, innovative in structure and promising some dramatic new policies: an “alternate” prime minister, the largest-ever Israeli cabinet, so many deputy ministers that some parties ran out of parliamentary manpower to staff the new posts; and on the policy front, grappling with a historic economic and health crisis and a dramatic (if still lacking in detail) plan for annexation in the West Bank.
With so much that’s new, it’s no wonder this government has caused fascination both at home and abroad as its contours came into view over the past month. Nobody has ever seen anything quite like it.
Yet in the fuss over the new and unexpected, it can be easy to miss the fundamentals — the recurring and well-trodden elements. These are often more significant signals of a government’s nature and direction than the politically strange and newfangled.
Perhaps the biggest winners of the new government – little surprise to anyone paying attention to Israeli politics over the past four decades – are the Haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism.
Levers of power
The details of Haredi political influence in the new government reveal a great deal about the community’s priorities.
For one thing, there are the three ministries given to the Haredi factions. New Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman of UTJ and veteran Interior Minister Aryeh Deri of Shas are positioned to help fast-growing Haredi towns with, for example, favorable zoning policies and affordable-housing reforms. The government will vote next week to bolster both ministries’ powers on precisely those matters: zoning, housing and land registration. Religious Affairs Minister Yaakov Avitan of Shas, meanwhile, is charged with ensuring that the state religious bureaucracy, a key employer and vital bulwark in the culture wars, remains in Haredi control.
Yet cabinet positions, while the most visible signals of political power, are not necessarily the most influential of the Haredi parties’ new conquests. Much of the hard work of governance – budget transfers of billions, legislative negotiations and amendments – is carried out in the nitty-gritty work of the Knesset committees.
It is there that one finds Shas and UTJ sitting at the bottleneck of all economic and budget decisions, as well as religious reforms.
UTJ’s MK Moshe Gafni is back at his old post as chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee, which is responsible for writing up the state budget laws. More surprising is Shas MK Yaakov Margi now chairing the Economy Committee — a chairmanship traditionally held by the opposition — from which he wields enormous influence over any and all economic reforms.
And for the first time, a Haredi MK, UTJ’s Yaakov Asher, helms the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, one of the Knesset’s most powerful posts. It gives UTJ the ability to stymie any religion-and-state reforms, not to mention leverage for legislative wheeling and dealing on other matters.
The Haredi parties have all the means to prevent any attempts in the legislature or government to forcibly draft their young men to military service or liberalize the state kashrut system or rabbinical courts
The Haredi parties won explicit promises from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that, in the words of the Likud-UTJ coalition agreement, “The status quo on religion and state issues shall be preserved, as was accepted in Israel for decades. The government will act to respect the Sabbath and holidays of Israel, which preserved us as a people. If any change threatens the status quo, the prime minister and the ‘Likud bloc’ shall act together and through mutual commitment to remove the harm in order to preserve the status quo.”
But with control of the relevant committees and ministries, the Haredi parties hardly need to worry that the premier might break those promises. They have all the means to prevent any attempts in the legislature or government to forcibly draft their young men to military service or liberalize the state kashrut system or rabbinical courts.
A great deal of ink has been spilled on the enormous number of deputy ministers – 16! – approved in the coalition agreement signed last month between Likud and Blue and White. While Israelis scratched their heads over what the new ministers for community empowerment, social equality, regional cooperation, strategic affairs and the portfolio dubbed “cyber and national digital matters” might actually do once in office, the question grows even more ludicrous at the prospect of a deputy minister for such a portfolio.
Perhaps it was the public outcry, or the fear that appointing so many MKs to government posts would leave Knesset committees understaffed, but almost two weeks into the 35th Government, just seven of the 16 deputy posts had been filled — five of the seven by Haredi parties.
Why? A deputy minister is an exceedingly weak position. The deputy serves at the pleasure of the minister, and usually finds the scope of their work severely limited. They must resign when the minister does. The post is widely and rightly mocked as a waste of a perfectly good legislator.
Why would the Haredi parties invest so heavily in deputy minister appointments when everyone else is shunning them?
The answer reveals a great deal about the Haredi parties’ sense of their role in politics. A Haredi deputy minister is less a subordinate than a parallel minister, though for a narrower constituency.
The Haredi parties hold the deputy minister posts in the ministries of finance, interior, and welfare (Shas MKs Yitzhak Cohen, Yoav Ben Tzur and Meshulam Nahari, respectively), as well as education and transportation (UTJ MKs Meir Porush and Uri Maklev respectively) – each for good reason.
On Sunday, May 24, just hours after he was voted into the post by the Knesset, Deputy Education Minister Meir Porush carried out his first official act as a member of the new government. He paid a visit to the Education Ministry’s Department for Torah Institutions, which oversees the vast transfers of funds via the state education budget to the “independent” — i.e., unsupervised and lacking a secular curriculum — Haredi school system.
Porush isn’t new to the department; he has served as deputy education minister for the better part of the past five years. But after a year of political deadlock, and with an updated education budget still months away from passing in the Knesset, the no-longer-interim deputy education minister must contend with a budget crisis in Haredi education brought on by the lack of a functioning Knesset.
“We’re in one of the most important places in the country,” he said during the visit to the department’s Jerusalem office. “Through you passes the greatest bulk of support for the world of Torah here in the land of Israel. Even if we could collect all the donations arriving from overseas [into one contribution], we wouldn’t get close to the amount given by the State of Israel to the students of Torah.”
Even in the best of times, many Haredi yeshivas and schools live from one government grant to another. These aren’t the best of times. The yeshiva world in Israel has been struck hard by the coronavirus crisis, which shuttered their doors for long weeks and dried up a great deal of their charitable funding from overseas.
But it was struck even harder by the fact that a Knesset deadlocked throughout 2019 was unable to pass a state budget for 2020, and so left many institutions scrambling to survive.
Porush’s visit on Sunday wasn’t a social call. It was the launch of an effort to produce a stopgap funding proposal to keep the yeshivas open and funded until the main state budget passes in a few weeks.
The loyalty of Shas and UTJ to the traditionally minded but nevertheless secular Netanyahu wasn’t a personal loyalty. It was rooted in fear at the prospect of being left without political influence
The Department for Torah Institutions is “one of the most important places in the country,” he said, and he meant it.
And so it is with Deputy Minister Yitzhak Cohen at the Finance Ministry – the Haredi community’s in-house problem-solver in the heart of the state treasury – and with Deputy Minister Uri Maklev at the Transportation Ministry, who will ensure Haredi religious feelings can’t be ignored when it comes to the ongoing fight over road and rail works on the Sabbath.
The state giveth
Benjamin Netanyahu might not be prime minister today if not for the loyalty of the Haredi parties to the right-wing “bloc” he willed into existence ahead of the September race.
Haredi voters preferred Netanyahu to rival Benny Gantz, according to polls. (And, indeed, UTJ voters were more likely than Likud voters, 88% to 73% according to a November poll by the Israel Democracy Institute, to believe Netanyahu’s claims that his legal troubles were created by a cabal of cops, prosecutors and journalists working to oust him from power.)
Yet the loyalty of Shas and UTJ to the traditionally minded but nevertheless secular Netanyahu wasn’t a personal loyalty. It was rooted in fear at the prospect of being left without political influence.
While some secularists decry Haredi political power and massive payouts to Haredi institutions from the state coffers, Haredi leaders themselves view the relationship as one of dependence and profound vulnerability.
Twice in recent memory Haredi parties found themselves shunted away from the cabinet table. In the 2013-2015 Netanyahu government, the secularist Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beytenu parties teamed up with Likud and the religious-Zionist Jewish Home to push them from their traditional seats of power and control over the state religious hierarchies. Haredi MKs remember the period as a trauma. Yesh Atid’s Shai Piron ran the Education Ministry with no Meir Porush at his side to temper the decree. Yeshivas struggled and shrank as budgets were cut, while laws were passed attempting to expand the Haredi military draft.
That was the second time in the past two decades that Haredi parties were excluded from government. The first was in the 2001 Sharon government, when then-finance minister Benjamin Netanyahu cut child tax benefits for large families as part of a broad raft of free-market reforms. The change brought on a two-decade shrinking of the size of Haredi families.
Haredi parties remember both events, and still invoke them when mobilizing voters to the polls.
It is not lost on any side that Netanyahu was intimately involved in both traumatic experiences.
The loyalty to Netanyahu over the past year wasn’t about Netanyahu, or at least not about the 2020 version of the man. It was about the 2002 Netanyahu and the 2014 Shai Piron. It was about fear.
Avigdor Liberman’s refusal to join a Netanyahu government on May 30, 2019, sparked almost a year of political deadlock that pit secularists Liberman and Yair Lapid against Netanyahu, and thus helped cement Haredi support for the prime minister.
Three times over the course of the next two election cycles Netanyahu would extract Haredi leaders’ signatures on “loyalty” letters to his right-wing bloc – until UTJ’s Moshe Gafni had had enough, telling the prime minister in March he would sign no more pledges.
Indeed, the same fear made Shas leader Aryeh Deri a key go-between carrying messages from Netanyahu to Gantz and urging both to seal a unity deal. Gantz’s decision on March 26, 2020, to enter into coalition talks with Netanyahu sidelined Lapid by breaking up the Lapid-Gantz alliance, and pushed Yisrael Beytenu’s Avigdor Liberman off his “kingmaker” perch and into irrelevance in the opposition. It made Gantz a valuable partner, too, and drove the Haredi parties to conclude that a stable, long-lasting and secularist-free unity government was the best possible outcome for them.
Throughout the Netanyahu-Gantz unity talks, fearful of a new election’s potential for rekindling secularist politics, the Haredi parties quietly but persistently pressured Netanyahu to seal a deal with Gantz.
The Haredi political factions are simultaneously powerful and weak. They wield enormous influence in the new Knesset and government, but are keenly aware that they quite literally cannot afford not to be there.
It has always been thus. The relationship of Haredi education, the community’s anchor and lifeblood, to the coalition negotiating table is intimate. Haredi society has used the coalition process to serve its needs and advance its views. But no less than that, it’s been shaped by that effort, and by Israeli state support.
Shas was founded in 1984 as a protest at rampant discrimination against Sephardi Jews throughout Israeli society, and especially in the ranks of the Ashkenazi Haredi parties. Three years later, having already won four Knesset seats, it launched the “El Hama’ayan” (“To the Wellspring”) network of schools.
It was a dramatic moment for Israeli society, an attempt to cobble together into a national movement with national aspirations the handful of local initiatives to establish Sephardi and Mizrahi religious schools that wouldn’t be dominated by Ashkenazi religiosity and politics.
It didn’t go well.
The first schools were haphazard and impoverished, housed in dilapidated buildings, and lacking funding and planning support from both national and local education authorities. The working-class parents who supported such schools often could not pay tuition.
The turning point for the schools, and for Shas as a party – and in some sense for Sephardi religious identity in Israel writ large – came when Shas began to barter its parliamentary votes for funding to its schools.
While others haggle and posture over annexation, judicial reform or Netanyahu’s trial, the Haredi parties have largely avoided such distractions
It was in the coalition agreements it signed with a succession of ruling parties in the ensuing decades that the “El Hama’ayan” school system really took off, and where the Shas party found its vehicle for the social revolution it sought to foment among Israel’s downtrodden Eastern Jews. Money began to flow, schools opened throughout the country, and the Sephardim no longer had to ask Ashkenazi UTJ for a seat at the table.
Shas once had to rely on the votes of traditionally minded but non-Haredi Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews to win Knesset seats. No longer. A generation and a half of Sephardi Haredi voters has now been reared in the party’s own education system.
Shas didn’t just take state funds over the past 33 years; it was shaped and defined by those funds.
Such reliance focuses the mind. While others haggle and posture over annexation, judicial reform or Netanyahu’s trial, the Haredi parties have largely avoided anything they view as distractions.
At the start of Netanyahu’s trial on Sunday, the prime minister received more good wishes for his speedy exoneration from Blue and White than from his partners in Shas and UTJ. And while Blue and White and Likud bickered over the ministries of regional cooperation and strategic affairs, the Haredi parties demanded unsung deputy ministerial posts from which they could deliver for their schools and communities.
Haredi voters have views about great matters of state beyond the confines of Haredi institutions, of course. And Haredi leaders possess the same egos that led other parties to form ministries of community empowerment and the like. But a deep dependence on public funds and the traumatic memory of the costs of wandering the political wilderness have given Haredi politicians a more focused view of what politics are for.
As the 35th Government gets underway, that focus seems to have paid off.