The Price of Joining the Opposition

Ultra-Orthodox Could Lose Mass State Funding Without Spot in Netanyahu Coalition

As members of the government, Shas and United Torah Judaism helped direct generous amounts of state funding to the Haredi community. If they are forced to sit in the opposition, that money may be at stake.

With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apparently moving toward forming a coalition government that does not include Israel's ultra-Orthodox Jewish political parties, ultra-Orthodox institutions stand to lose huge sums of state funding.

Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid and Naftali Bennett's Habayit Hayehudi parties, which are presenting a united front in coalition talks, seem to be pushing Netanyahu toward forming a government with them and leaving the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, in the opposition. As members of the government for the past four years, the Haredi parties have ensured their community's institutions receive financial support through budget allocations to the education, social affairs and religious services ministries as well as through child-support allowances. Over the same time period, such institutions have also received hundreds of millions of shekels of so-called coalition funding that was not formally budgeted.

The Haredi community is allocated billions of shekels every year, said Shahar Ilan, the vice president of research and information for Hiddush, an organization that promotes religious tolerance. In the past four years, Haredi-administered school dormitories alone received NIS 60 million in state funding, he said, NIS 40 million of which is not formally budgeted but secured by the lobbying efforts of Haredi-party Knesset members.

Then there is the Education Ministry's Jewish culture budget, which Ilan said is designed to provide state funds to organizations affiliated with Haredi parties, including Shas' El Hama'ayan and United Torah Judaism's Torah V'Yahadut La'am ("Torah and Judaism for the People"), as well as those that encourage religious observance by the secular Jews. Under the last government, the budget has ballooned from NIS 20 million to NIS 60 million a year, Ilan said.

An even bigger chunk of state funding goes to Haredi education. The school systems associated with Shas and United Torah Judaism each received between NIS 100 million and NIS 150 million in last four years. Yeshivas in general received billions of shekels, including about NIS 800 in monthly scholarships for every married yeshiva student and NIS 500 scholarships for unmarried students.

The flow of money from all these sources is expected to be reduced if the Haredi parties are not included in the governing coalition.But the religious parties do not plan to let it happen without a fight.

"Religious institutions receive what they do precisely according to the law, just like any university or secondary school," MK Nissim Zeev (Shas) said after his Knesset faction's weekly meeting Friday, where it was decided he and faction chairman Avaraham Michaeli would coordinate the party's work if it was not part of the government. "In opposition, Shas would fight on every issue. The government will have to take 50 opposition Knesset members into account," Zeev vowed, referring to the other parties he expected to be in the opposition in addition to Shas' 11 seats. The opposition would be united by the issue of social welfare, he said.

If a secular-party government is formed, Shas is expected to lose control of the Interior Ministry to Yesh Atid and the Housing and Construction Ministry to Habayit Hayehudi.

MK Menachem Eliezer Moses (United Torah Judaism) warned that if allocations to the Haredi community were reduced, he and his colleagues could influence allocations to West Bank settlements, where many of Habayit Hayehudis supporters live. He noted that the 50 settlements outside the major blocs cost the state a fortune and must be protected by a large number of Israel Defense Forces troops. "We are not afraid," he said.

A central issue in the ongoing coalition talks is the conscription of Haredi yeshiva students, who have always been exempt from military service. In February, the High Court of Justice struck down as unconstitutional the Tal Law, which had legally enshrined the exemption since 2002, and it expired in August. A government without Haredi representation could significantly cut government support for yeshivas, from which the High Court ruled students are not drafted in sufficiently large numbers.

The government may also require Haredi couples receiving subsidized services, such as day care, housing benefits and reduced municipal taxes, to collectively work a minimum number of hours. At this point, a large number of Haredi men chose to study Torah rather than work, partly because they receive draft exemption through the yeshivas. Ilan from Hiddush said making benefits contingent on working could slash state funding of the Haredi community, possibly resulting in a flood of Haredi men into the labor market.

Netanyahu may not be eager to face down the politically powerful Haredi parties with whom he has long partnered. He is thought not to trust Yesh Atid or Habayit Yehudi, whose leaders could compete with him for leadership of the country, and may need Shas and United Torah Judaism's support against them in the future.  

But the fact remains, if the Haredi parties end up in the opposition, they will lose major sources of institutional influence. These include the chairmanship of the Knesset Finance Committee, which has been controlled by United Torah Judaism for decades with the exception of one period of a few years. The current committee chairman, MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) has helped the Finance Ministry pass many bills and regulatory changes, but has been accused of doing so in exchange for funding for the Haredi community. He boasted several months ago of getting budget cuts for yeshivas "thrown in the wastebasket."