Sides want to let businesses refuse service 'due to beliefs'

Likud-UTJ deal seeks gender-segregated public events, review of Law of Return

Draft of far-reaching agreement addresses many of the ultra-Orthodox party’s demands on religion, welfare and education; includes a clause to support Likud-led judicial reform

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

United Torah Judaism leader Rabbi Yitzhak Goldknopf arrives for coalition talks with Likud chief Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on November 6, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
United Torah Judaism leader Rabbi Yitzhak Goldknopf arrives for coalition talks with Likud chief Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on November 6, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party has reached a coalition deal with Haredi party United Torah Judaism to allow gender-segregated public events and to form a panel to review eligibility requirements for Jewish immigration to Israel, according to a widely circulated copy of the unsigned draft deal.

The draft confirms previously reported details about the ultra-Orthodox party’s far-reaching demands to tighten Orthodox control over religious institutions and apply religion to civil affairs, along with a slew of demands on education, welfare and other areas.

The sides agreed to support judicial reform legislation proposed by the next justice minister, slated to be a Likud lawmaker. The right has long sought to overhaul checks and balances between the judicial and political branches, making the former more subordinate to politicians, including through weakening the Supreme Court and increasing politicians’ influence on judicial appointments.

The agreement also stipulates that laws will be changed to allow service providers to refuse service “due to religious belief” — a likely reference to the gay community — “provided the service or product is not unique and a similar alternative can be obtained in geographic proximity and at a similar price.”

Although UTJ, fellow ultra-Orthodox party Shas and a far-right alliance of Otzma Yehudit, Religious Zionism and Noam all ran as a bloc led by Netanyahu in the November 1 election, the designated premier only declared Wednesday that he can form a government, shortly before a legal deadline.

None of the parties have yet to sign a final coalition deal with Netanyahu’s party, although Otzma Yehudit and Religious Zionism announced Thursday that they’ve reached a framework with Likud.

UTJ has pushed for legislation to permit gender-segregated public events, which the party has claimed is respectful for its deeply religious constituents. Such gender segregation is currently illegal under Israeli law, but the draft deal promises to legalize the practice.

UTJ has also pressed to narrow the standards for Jewish immigration to Israel under the Law of Return. A cornerstone in Israel’s relationship with diaspora Jewry, the Law of Return establishes that a Jew, or a grandchild or child of a Jew, is eligible for Israeli citizenship.

MK Moshe Gafni, right, and MK Yitzhak Goldknopf speak during a meeting of the United Torah Judaism party at the Knesset in Jerusalem on December 5, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Religious lawmakers have assailed the Law of Return’s grandchild clause, claiming that it is leading to the dilution of Israel’s Jewish character by allowing immigrants not considered Jewish under Orthodox law.

Along with opposition leaders, several Likud lawmakers have pushed back against any changes to the Law of Return, including Soviet-born MK Yuli Edelstein, a former Prisoner of Zion who urged lawmakers to “leave it in peace.”

Likud said its coalition partners had sought to change the grandchild clause but that Netanyahu had refused, and for this reasons, the sides had agreed to form a committee to discuss the matter. The committee will include representatives from all coalition parties.

Likud MK Yuli Edelstein speaks in the Knesset on December 6, 2022. (Noam Moskowitz/Knesset)

The agreement includes a clause reaffirming that only Orthodox conversions performed through the Chief Rabbinate will be accepted in Israel. Critics of the current system, including former religious services minister Matan Kahana, have said that the conversion system must be liberalized to encourage conversion among immigrants not recognized as Jewish under Orthodox law.

Also touching on matters of religion and state, the draft agreement shows UTJ secured promises to legislate further military exemptions for full-time religious study and to pass a quasi-constitutional Basic Law on the Torah. UTJ has set both as conditions for supporting the next state budget.

“In light of the importance that the Jewish people have given and continue to give to learning Torah throughout the generations, a new Basic Law: Torah, will be legislated which states that learning the Torah is a fundamental value in the heritage of the Jewish people, and it will happen before the budget is passed for 2023,” the draft coalition agreement states.

Exemptions to military enlistment for the ultra-Orthodox have been a charged topic for years and helped kick off several years of political instability culminating in the November election.

Likud Head MK Benjamin Netanyahu surrounded by MKs after a vote for the new Knesset speaker at the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on December 13, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Among other agreements relating to religion, the draft deal includes promises to include a representative from the Chief Rabbinate on panels that permit public-sector work on Shabbat; a legal ban on bringing hametz, or unleavened bread, into hospitals during Passover; and a pledge to “maintain the status quo on religion and state.”

It also promises to cancel two reforms passed by Kahana: liberalization of the Kosher certification market and a change to the system for appointing municipal rabbis.

UTJ’s base includes many families struggling with poverty and food insecurity. The party secured NIS 1 billion ($286 million) to continue a food stamp program.

The party secured a promise to look into lowering the cost of gluten-free food for people with celiac disease, either by subsidizing food, subjecting products to price controls, or doling out benefits to people with the condition.

The agreement promised to freeze the outgoing government’s agricultural reforms, which were intended to liberalize the domestic food market.

UTJ committed to supporting the bloc’s judicial reform ambitions, which will also enable some of the party’s more contentious proposals to avoid potential invalidation by the High Court of Justice.

Likud chief Benjamin Netanyahu (R) speaks with MK Yariv Levin during Levin’s election as Knesset speaker, December 13, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The draft deal includes a clause whereby UTJ pledges to support any and all judicial reform legislation proposed by the next justice minister. This package is expected to include a controversial override clause to enable the Knesset to reinstate laws invalidated by the High Court, as well as changes to the Supreme Court and its appointments process.

UTJ agreed to a Likud-backed push to allow politicians to hire and fire legal advisers at government ministries. Currently, these positions maintain independence and fall under the authority of the attorney general.

On education, the sides agreed that “the independence, unique status and relative budget” of ultra-Orthodox schools will be preserved, while the next education minister will agree to extend an exemption allowing some Haredi institutions to not teach core subjects like English and mathematics.

The deal includes a clause stipulating that the government will prioritize the construction of new schools in ultra-Orthodox communities and grants significant funding hikes to existing educational institutions, including by matching the salaries of teachers to those at non-Haredi schools.

The text of the agreement released Thursday did not include a section on the ministerial and Knesset posts that UTJ is set to receive.

As part of the agreement with Likud, UTJ chief Yitzhak Goldknopf — a freshman Knesset member who is slated to be the next housing minister — will be a member of the high-level security cabinet, according to Hebrew media reports.

If Goldknopf gets a seat in the cabinet, it would be the first time a lawmaker from the Haredi party has served on the key panel, which makes sensitive defense decisions.

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