UTJ head doesn’t rule out sitting with Lapid, will ‘probably’ back Netanyahu

But Moshe Gafni walks out of Channel 12 interview while denying Haredim are disproportionately violating health rules: ‘I don’t accept this incitement, we’ve had it’

United Torah Judaism leader Moshe Gafni, at the opening event of its election campaign, ahead of the Israeli elections, in Jerusalem, on February 12, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
United Torah Judaism leader Moshe Gafni, at the opening event of its election campaign, ahead of the Israeli elections, in Jerusalem, on February 12, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The head of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party on Sunday did not rule out a coalition with opposition leader Yair Lapid, and would not commit to recommending Benjamin Netanyahu lead the next government after the March 23 election, though he said this was the most likely option.

But MK Moshe Gafni later cut the interview with Channel 12 News short, growing angry after being repeatedly asked about Haredi violations of health guidelines during the coronavirus pandemic.

Gafni, who recently replaced MK Yaakov Litzman as UTJ leader, told Channel 12 of potential political alliances: “After the election results we’ll see what the options are.”

The coming election will be Israel’s fourth in two years. In the past rounds, UTJ vowed in advance to back Netanyahu. This time, Gafni said: “We’ll probably go with Netanyahu. If there’s no dramatic change we’ll probably recommend him.”

Asked what had changed since the previous national votes, Gafni said “there’s a difference, in society, in life here, the difficult reality we are in.”

Opposition leader Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid-Telem at his office in the Knesset, Jerusalem, on September 14, 2020. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP)

He said he would only rule out one party as a coalition partner: Yisrael Beytenu and its leader Avigdor Liberman, who has in recent elections run on the ticket of a government free of Haredi influence.

Ultra-Orthodox parties have long reviled Lapid and his Yesh Atid party, which has also touted secularist policies and opposed ongoing ultra-Orthodox control on many levers of power. However, Gafni signaled UTJ may be less resolutely opposed to Lapid than before.

Asked if Lapid was a potential ally, Gafni demured. “Who knows? We’ll see. If his political platform changes we’ll discuss it.”

But Gafni reacted angrily to repeated questions on what he termed a lack of leadership by ultra-Orthodox politicians on issues pertaining to the pandemic.

Over the course of the pandemic, there has been growing public anger over frequent large-scale violations of lockdown rules by some in the ultra-Orthodox community, as well as the government’s apparent reluctance to strongly enforce health rules in that community.

Though violations have been seen across Israeli society they have been most pronounced in the Haredi community, while also being encouraged by some top religious leaders, with some schools opening during lockdowns with the blessing of rabbis.

With morbidity in the ultra-Orthodox community disproportionately higher than in any other single societal group, Haredi lawmakers have decried attempts to more strongly enforce laws in their communities, and have claimed such efforts to be discriminatory and unhelpful.

Gafni insisted that “the instructions are to maintain the Health Ministry’s instructions.”

Israeli police clash with Haredi men as they enforce coronavirus restrictions in the Haredi neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem, January 24, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Asked about Haredi violations, Gafni said various Israelis have flouted health regulations and asserted that the media is unfairly focusing on his public.

“I don’t accept this incitement, that there are violations in the Haredi public, I don’t accept it, we’ve had it, we’ve all had it,” he said. “We are doing everything that can be done on this matter.”

He said “the vast majority, the mainstream,” keep to the rules. “You’ve focused on incidents where [rules were broken].”

He denied that some rabbis, including Chaim Kanievsky, had sanctioned the opening of institutions in violation of the rules.

When told this was simply untrue by the correspondent, Gafni ended the interview.

“Alright. We’re done,” he said, refusing to answer further questions.

Police have been criticized for failing to effectively enforce health rules in Haredi communities.

Anger over disregard shown in parts of the Haredi community toward coronavirus restrictions reached new heights last Sunday when authorities failed to stop the two large Haredi funerals from taking place, with thousands of people, many maskless, breaking lockdown regulations and failing to observe any social distancing, creating major health hazards.

Police told media outlets that dispersing the crowds would have caused “bloodshed.”

Netanyahu has been seen as unwilling to anger his Haredi political partners, without whose support he has no hope of remaining in power.

Another large funeral was held in Bnei Brak Sunday evening, leading Lapid to tweet: “An insane government, an insane funeral.”

On Friday Lapid said police should be using water cannons to disperse illegal ultra-Orthodox gatherings.

“Police cannot say ‘I won’t enforce the law.’ If police and the government had been resolute [on curbing Haredi violations] they wouldn’t have held these funerals in the first place,” Lapid said.

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