UTJ’s Goldknopf withdraws demand for security cabinet seat after protests

Bid by Haredi party leader who did not serve in military for seat on high level defense panel drew fire from partners, opposition

United Torah Judaism party chief MK Yitzchak Goldknopf at a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on December 5, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
United Torah Judaism party chief MK Yitzchak Goldknopf at a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on December 5, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

United Torah Judaism chief Yitzhak Goldknopf withdrew his demand for a seat on the high-level security cabinet on Monday, days after the request kicked off a internal brouhaha, due to opposition from lawmakers inside the party.

The move by Goldknopf, who leads the Agudat Yisrael faction within UTJ, answers a major complaint raised by members of the Degel HaTorah faction that makes up the other half of the UTJ alliance. Degel HaTorah lawmakers had sought to reopen coalition negotiations with Likud and incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu over opposition to Goldknopf taking the security cabinet position, threatening to derail the single agreement Likud has managed to seal with its array of likely political partners.

Goldknopf taking the seat would have been the first time a lawmaker from the Haredi party served on the key panel, which is made up of top ministers charged with making sensitive defense decisions.

The party has for decades avoided taking up ministry posts so as to not bear responsibility for actions taken by Israel’s secular leadership, and the security cabinet position would have put Goldknopf and the party in the position of potentially sending people to war.

The spot on the high-level cabinet had reportedly been stipulated by UTJ in its coalition agreement with Likud. Goldknopf had reportedly sought the post to have a hand in determining policy regarding the drafting of ultra-Orthodox recruits, which the party opposes.

Members of Degel HaTorah protested last week, after details of a deal between Likud and Agudat Yisrael become public, saying talks should be reopened as the two factions had not coordinated their positions.

Aside from Goldknopf’s security cabinet position, Degel HaTorah expressed unhappiness that the deal did not sufficiently address mandatory military service exemptions for yeshiva students.

Goldknopf’s security cabinet bid had also drawn fire from the opposition.

Many UTJ representatives, including Goldknopf, did not serve in the military and are pushing to expand ultra-Orthodox exemptions from IDF service in the incoming government.

“For the first time, the chair of United Torah Judaism, an anti-Zionist party that openly opposes military service, will sit on the committee that directly influences the IDF and the security forces,” outgoing Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman charged recently, accusing incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu of “spitting in the faces of IDF soldiers.”

United Torah Judaism (UTJ) lawmaker Moshe Gafni arrives for coalition talks at a hotel in Jerusalem, on November 9, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The two factions that make up UTJ, which represent competing rabbinical traditions, have been at odds at other times in the past, including during the recent election cycle.

Agudat Yisrael and Degel HaTorah have run on a joint slate since 1992, barring a period in 2004-2006 when they split over a disagreement about cooperating with the coalition, reuniting before the subsequent election.

In the lead-up to the November elections, Degel HaTorah head Moshe Gafni threatened to break off from Agudat Yisrael unless certain demands were met.

Goldknopf, a political newcomer who is slated to be housing minister, stirred controversy earlier during coalition negotiations when he suggested that he did not see any housing crisis in the country, despite the surging costs leaving home ownership out of reach for much of the population.

“People are always talking to me about a housing crisis — I don’t know much about the Housing Ministry until now, so I don’t know if there really is a crisis,” Goldknopf said at a conference organized by the Walla news site.

According to reports last week, Goldknopf owns a property in Jerusalem that was divided into five separate apartments without a permit. He denied he still has rights to the property, but did not provide paperwork to show that it had been transferred to anyone else.

A Friday report said Goldknopf used a network of educational institutes to increase his family’s wealth from public coffers, and ensured the coalition agreement would include increased funding for Haredi preschools in what could be a conflict of interest.

Netanyahu’s incoming coalition includes his Likud, UTJ, the Haredi Shas party, and the far-right factions Religious Zionism, Otzma Yehudit, and Noam.

Netanyahu has until January 2 to swear in his coalition. He still has to overcome some key stumbling blocks beforehand, including formalizing coalition agreements with almost all of his partners, dividing jobs among his Likud party members and finalizing two key pieces of legislation demanded by coalition partners as preconditions.

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