The coalition dealsGender-separated public events; a restricted Law of Return

UTJ inks coalition deal with Likud, ending internal squabbling ahead of swearing in

Agreement says Haredi party will get Housing Ministry and newly rebranded Jerusalem and Jewish Tradition Ministry, 3 deputy ministers and chairmanship of 4 Knesset committees

Michael Bachner

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Likud party chairman Benjamin Netanyahu, right, shakes hands with United Torah Judaism party leader Yitzhak Goldknopf in the Knesset plenum in Jerusalem on November 21, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)
Likud party chairman Benjamin Netanyahu, right, shakes hands with United Torah Judaism party leader Yitzhak Goldknopf in the Knesset plenum in Jerusalem on November 21, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

The Likud and United Torah Judaism (UTJ) parties signed an official coalition deal early Wednesday morning, after days of squabbling between the ultra-Orthodox party’s two internal factions and a day ahead of the expected swearing-in of the government.

Incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party was formally inking coalition deals with his ultra-Orthodox and far-right allies Wednesday, following almost two months of painstaking negotiations that have included far-reaching concessions on policy matters and on ministerial roles.

The deal says the party will get the following roles: Housing minister (expected to be party leader Yitzhak Goldknopf); Jerusalem and Jewish tradition minister, rebranded from the current Jerusalem and Heritage Ministry; deputy transportation minister; deputy culture minister; deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office in charge of development in the Haredi community and the Holocaust Survivors Rights Authority; chair of the Knesset’s Finance Committee (expected to be party No. 2 Moshe Gafni), the Internal Affairs and Environment Committee, the Labor and Welfare Committee and the Special Committee for Public Petitions.

A copy of the coalition deal signed between Likud and UTJ said the new Jerusalem and Jewish tradition minister “will be responsible for strengthening Jewish tradition, deepening the knowledge and connection of all parts of Israeli society to the tradition” and advancing related projects.

The new minister will also oversee the annual Lag B’Omer festival at Mount Meron in northern Israel and be tasked with implementing the recommendations of an investigative committee looking into a deadly crush at the religious site in 2021 that left 45 dead and over 150 injured.

The ministry is expected to be helmed by UTJ’s Meir Porush, who opposed the committee’s formation. (Update: Porush is running the ministry but is formally only a deputy minister.)

The agreement, which is not legally binding, contains far-reaching policy changes on religion and state, including enabling gender-segregated public events, narrowing the standards for Jewish immigration under the Law of Return, and nixing a plan to phase out old 2G and 3G cellular networks to protect so-called kosher phone lines.

The negotiations had hit a significant snag in recent days following reports that Goldknopf, leader of the Agudat Yisrael Hasidic faction, had been given a spot on the high-level security cabinet, which is made up of top ministers and charged with making sensitive defense decisions, in what would have been a first for a UTJ politician.

The non-Hasidic Degel HaTorah, headed by Gafni, said it hadn’t agreed to the move, which would have put the party in the position of potentially sending people to war. The party has for decades avoided taking up ministry posts so as to not bear responsibility for actions taken by Israel’s secular leadership.

MK Moshe Gafni speaks during a meeting of the United Torah Judaism party at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on December 5, 2022 (Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

After Degel HaTorah demanded the complete reopening of talks over the matter, Goldknopf withdrew his demand for a security cabinet spot on Monday.

According to the Makor Rishon newspaper, the deal was signed following a breakthrough Tuesday in internal UTJ negotiations over control of a rabbinical panel that manages the so-called kosher phones — mobile phones stripped of internet and other modern capabilities used by many ultra-Orthodox Jewish Israelis.

Degel HaTorah had reportedly demanded the formation of a second committee controlled by the faction, in addition to the current, Agudat Yisrael-controlled panel, or alternatively to get influence over the current committee. The factions have reportedly agreed to delay the resolution of the matter until after the swearing in, and before planned legislation on the cellphone reform comes up for final plenum votes.

Agudat Yisrael and Degel HaTorah have been united as UTJ since 1992, save for a period in 2004-2006 when they split over a disagreement about cooperating with the coalition.

Netanyahu and his Likud party promised to quickly form a stable, right-wing government after Otzma Yehudit, Religious Zionism, Noam and his long-time ultra-Orthodox partners Shas and United Torah Judaism won 64-seats in the 120-seat Knesset in the November election.

However, talks were bogged down for weeks as the parties squabbled over ministerial roles and policy goals.

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)

As part of Likud’s previously reported coalition deal with UTJ, legislation will be advanced to allow gender-segregated public events, and a panel will be formed to review eligibility requirements for Jewish immigration to Israel.

UTJ and other expected partners of Netanyahu’s coalition have also proposed raising 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.

The sides also agreed to support the 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 draft agreement also showed UTJ secured promises to legislate further military exemptions for full-time religious study and to pass a quasi-constitutional Basic Law on the value of Torah studies. UTJ has set both as conditions for supporting the next state budget.

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