Text size

"Starting today, secular fear and terror will reign against the Haredim," wrote Yisrael Eichler three and a half years ago, a few days after Ehud Barak won the 1999 elections. "Swastikas, synagogue burnings, beatings in the streets, threats, and even things that cannot be put on paper, are part of what already happened in this country during 'good for the Jews' days [of Netanyahu]. Starting today one must be doubly careful and fear speaking the entire truth and all we think about the bitter fate of the community of Israel in exile among the Jews. The rule of the judges will weigh its hand down upon us and the secular regime will repress every expression."

Eichler's grim prediction was published in the Belzer magazine he edits, Hamahane Hayehudi, despite the 17 Knesset seats won by Shas that same week and the achievements of all three religious factions that went into the Knesset with 27 seats. Large parts of the Haredi public were in a gloomy mood in those early days after the elections. Eichler's position, while extreme, was a fair reflection of the feeling in the Haredi community - the reason for it was that Shinui had won six seats in the Knesset.

Dr. Neri Horowitz, who researches Haredi life, quoted Eichler's text in a study he recently published through the Florsheimer Institute for Policy Studies. The study claims the 1999 election results took secular-Haredi relations to a new level of tension practically unprecedented in Israel. Shinui, said Horowitz, "is perceived by the Haredim as a party of hatred that breaks the traditional framework of relations between religion, society and state in Israel."

The title Horowtiz put on his study, "Jews, the town is burning," reflected that feeling. Eichler's somewhat hysterical article in 1999 will be moderate compared to what will certainly be written in the Haredi press on the day after the coming elections. Two weeks before Election Day, the polls show that Eichler, who is fifth on the United Torah Judaism list, might find himself sitting next to 17 representatives from Shinui. The religious representation in the Knesset is expected to shrink significantly, from 27 seats to 20.

Lost key

Ever increasing numbers of Haredim now fear their parties will be the main losers in the elections. But more than anything the Haredi politicians fear the composition of the next government coalition. On the assumption that Ariel Sharon does manage to get re-elected, the little they know about his intentions does not ease their minds. They hear his plans for a broad coalition, and note the hints about his opposition to a narrow right-religious government, and they also understand that the strengthening of Shinui and the competition between it and Labor will make it difficult for Labor to join a coalition with the Likud and the religious parties.

In other words, they fear they've lost the key to the next government and it's now in Shinui's hands, and they know Shinui has already made clear that it will keep Shas and UTJ out of the next government. The fire in the town could turn into a conflagration.

Of the parties expected to be the largest after the January 28 vote - Likud, Labor and Shinui - only Shinui knows what it will do in the coalition negotiations. It made up its mind a few weeks ago, even before the Likud and Sharon became embroiled in the corruption scandals that could yet change the entire picture. "We'll force the Likud and Labor into a coalition without the religious parties," said Yosef Paritzky, MK (Shinui).

"Likud and Labor still dream about their good, old-fashioned coalitions but this time it won't work. The Likud is dreaming about a coalition with the religious and the extreme right, and Labor's dreaming about a coalition with Meretz and the Arabs. We won't let it happen."

Even though the polls give Shinui at least 17 seats, they are refusing to consider that a tie between Likud and Labor could force President Moshe Katsav to ask Shinui leader Yosef Lapid to form a coalition. "We aren't that megalomaniac," says Paritzky, "though I think there was such a case in Italy once."

Paritzky said this weekend that the gap between Likud and Labor won't shrink beyond four seats and therefore there will be a secular coalition with rotation between Sharon and Mitzna. His colleague, Avraham Poraz, MK, believes a secular coalition is a certainty if the Likud, National Union and the religious parties get 60 seats or less. "If they have a 61-seat majority, of course, that's an entirely different story."

Toeing the line

Last Thursday's Dialogue poll gave the religious-right coalition 61 seats, with the left getting 40 and the center 19. Poraz, who toes the party line, says "the Likud is the secular party with the most leaders who are outraged by Haredi draft dodging." He believes the Likud and the religious parties "have no ideological common denominator," and says the Likud leadership "understands that Shas is the Likud's biggest enemy."

Therefore, he's convinced the Likud will be happy to dump its religious allies, if it can find a good excuse. If the Likud can't make a right wing religious coalition, he says, "Shinui will provide them with the excuse" to break the alliance with the religious parties. After imposing a secular coalition, Shinui will also seek to shape its agenda. "There are things that could be done easily and other things that will be a little less easy to do," says Poraz.

"First of all, we'll demand doing everything that doesn't require legislation - closing down the religious affairs ministry, and end to payments to fictitious yeshivas, an end to payments to kollels. In short, we want to end the preferential treatment of the Haredim. We'll immediately dry up that flow of funding."

Then they'll demand the transportation minister sign an order allowing public transport on Saturdays, that the education minister "dry up" the Shas school system by cutting off payments for public school education to those towns where the Shas schools operate, and that the government provide financing to the Reform and Conservative moments. Those actions that require legislation, like "canceling the Tal Law and establishing quotas for a Haredi draft into the army" or establishing civil marriage - "first for those barred from marriage and then for everyone" - will take place during the term in office, "in stages, and wisely."

Shinui's leaders aren't worried about the shocks their program might deliver to Israeli society. "Woe to any government afraid of violent gangs," says Paritzky.

The Likud campaign managers are having a hard time coming up with a position to counter the voices coming from Shinui. They have a main problem of not knowing how the scandals will affect them at the polls on January 28, or what kind of coalition Sharon will want to form - or even if he will be re-elected. No wonder that five top Likud ministers - Tzachi Hanegbi, Danny Naveh, Meir Sheetrit, Tzipi Livne and Reuven Rivlin - refused to be interviewed for this article. From off the record conversations with other Likud sources it is evident that the party is very worried by Shinui's newfound strength - and its plans for the coalition.

Wary of Netanyahu

Despite Shinui's argument, the Likud believes there is an ideological overlap between them and the religious parties, which isn't just a shared view of the Palestinian-Arab issue. One senior Likud politician says: "I don't think the question of what happens on Saturdays near my house in Tel Aviv is a question that only involves the religious. Likud also wants to preserve the Jewish nature of the Sabbath, and therefore the issue is important to Likud, irrespective of is coalition interests."

The alliance between the Likud and the religious parties was forged 25 years ago in Menachem Begin's first government, and is perceived more as an ideological and strategic partnership than a matter of coalition interests. And there are pragmatic interests as well. The Likud believes that if Sharon tries to leave the Haredim outside the next coalition, Benjamin Netanyahu will challenge him.

Shinui's newfound strength, the popularity of the secular coalition in the broader public, and the fact that the Likud is losing strength but Labor is not gaining, is deeply embarrassing to the Labor Party. Their response to the idea of a secular coalition is varied. Yuli Tamir, for example, doesn't rule it out, but only if the government is headed by Amram Mitzna. And since this past weekend, this is beginning to look like a real possibility.

"The religious parties have ceased being axis parties and are now firmly locked into the right wing camp," says the former minister, who is in the top ten of Labor's list and inside Mitzna's inner circle. "The long term strategy of both Sharon and the Likud requires them to continue counting on the religious."

Party secretary general Ophir Pines-Paz believes the scenario of a secular coalition is an illusion. "Why should Likud join a coalition headed by Mitzna, with Shinui? What will they look for in such a government? Why would they want to give us the government, betraying their best allies?"

While Sharon will prevent Mitzna from forming a secular coalition, the religious parties will prevent Sharon from doing it, Paz believes. In the new-old system, he notes, party representatives are asked by the president to name their candidate for prime minister. The religious parties, says Paz, will name Sharon, "but only if they get a pubic explicit commitment he won't make a secular coalition with Shinui."

Paz is convinced his party chairman, Mitzna, will ultimately get the nod from the president - but he's hard pressed to say which parties will be in the coalition. "I'm not at all sure that after January 28, a Sharon-led Likud will be considered a legitimate coalition partner, as far as public hygiene is concerned."