Shas to resume voting with coalition, but Ben Gvir digs heels in, keeping crisis alive

As Haredi party backs off from confrontation, Otzma Yehudit party still refuses to support coalition legislation, though it agrees to vote down Wednesday’s opposition bills

Chairman of the Shas party, MK Aryeh Deri, speaks during an interview at his home in Jerusalem, on April 15, 2024. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)
Chairman of the Shas party, MK Aryeh Deri, speaks during an interview at his home in Jerusalem, on April 15, 2024. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

The ultra-Orthodox Shas party will go back to voting with the coalition after the far-right Otzma Yehudit party tanked a bill it had been pushing to amend the Religious Services Law, which sparked a dispute between the two coalition factions and reciprocal threats to bring down the government.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, chairman of Otzma Yehudit, refused to support Shas’s bill unless Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu granted him more influence over the management of the war against Hamas and its allies.

In a statement on Wednesday, the far-right party said that while it would resume helping the coalition defeat bills proposed by the opposition, it would “continue to disrupt the work of the coalition” — leaving the government in place but unable to pass legislation without the opposition’s cooperation.

Shas said Wednesday that it had tried to pass the Religious Services Law amendment “to boost the status of the rabbis in Israel, who are sacrificing their lives in this period,” and “to improve the conditions of employees at religious councils.”

“Astonishingly, [Ben Gvir] chose to overturn the law and create an unnecessary rift in the right during wartime due to political considerations,” the Shas statement continued.

“As such, Shas is showing responsibility and will not create a crisis at this moment that may harm the national efforts for a hostage deal, and therefore will vote together with the coalition,” the party said, backing down from reported threats to cause the coalition’s collapse over the matter.

Head of the Otzma Yehudit party National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir leads a faction meeting of the Otzma Yehudit party at the Knesset on June 10, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Tensions between Shas and Otzma Yehudit reached a boiling point earlier this week, when Ben Gvir torpedoed support for the Religious Services Law amendment, leading to a Shas walk-out from the Knesset and a bitter war of words between the two parties on Monday.

The exchange reignited concerns that Shas and fellow ultra-Orthodox party United Torah Judaism could withdraw from the coalition altogether, collapsing the government.

Shas’s controversial bill would have authorized the government to pay regional rabbis out of the national budget, while they are currently paid by local authorities.

But it was viewed by critics as a backdoor through which to reintroduce the so-called “Rabbis Bill,” divisive legislation that would have dramatically expanded the Chief Rabbinate’s authority over the appointment of municipal rabbis.

Netanyahu pulled the Rabbis Bill from the Knesset last month, after several lawmakers from his own Likud party refused to support it, at the same time that another Shas priority, the ultra-Orthodox conscription bill seeking to formalize military exemptions for yeshiva students, ran up against a similar mutiny by non-Haredi coalition lawmakers.

Otzma Yehudit maintained on Wednesday that the amendment to the Religious Services Law would only be approved if Ben Gvir were allowed to join Netanyahu’s closed forum for managing the war, referring to small ad hoc consultations the premier holds with the defense minister and relevant officials.

Ben Gvir has long been demanding a more hardline approach to the war, advocating withholding fuel and other aid from the Gaza Strip and placing fewer limitations on troops in the field. He has expressed frustration and issued multiple public threats to bolt the coalition if his demands are not met, though he hasn’t followed through.

“Just yesterday it was proven, with the abandonment of security in the north, how necessary the presence of Minister Ben Gvir is in the forum for managing the war,” Otzma Yehudit said in its statement, referring to the deaths of two civilians during a Hezbollah rocket barrage on the Golan Heights.

“Until this happens, Otzma Yehudit will continue to disrupt the work of the coalition,” the statement said.

“At the same time, regarding the opposition’s votes today, Otzma Yehudit will not let the opposition win and pass laws and will vote against the laws that the opposition will propose,” it concluded.

Sam Sokol contributed to this report.

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