Will United Torah Judaism (UTJ), Shas and perhaps also the National Union negotiate as a large religious bloc? Over the last few weeks, Dudi Zilberschlag, the publisher of the ultra-Orthodox paper Bakehillah has been waging a campaign to form such a bloc under the slogan "in the coalition only if we go together." The underlying argument is that "only a united religious bloc will guarantee a Jewish state for the strengthening of the Sabbath and the strengthening of Jewish education and spare us from a constitution." The unique thing about this campaign that it was not launched at the rabbis' behest, rather it tried to generate public opinion in favor of such a bloc to convince the rabbis to voice their support. In an interview in Bakehillah, Shas party chair Eli Yishai said, "In principle, it's clear that a bloc is preferable," but he also suggested, "waiting and seeing what the Jewish people decides." Ostensibly, a nonbonding statement, but nevertheless, a senior Shas official saying that the party will make a considerable effort to negotiate jointly with other religious parties and recalling that it was the same during the negotiations to form the [Ehud] Barak government.
A bloc comprised of Shas and UTJ seems relatively simple. A bloc that also includes the National Union-National Religious Party seems much more complicated, given the difficulties of the past. "Specifically those who were leading partners in a government that hurt the Haredi public now want a religious front," said the head of the UTJ list, Yaakov Litzman in an interview with the ultra-Orthodox local newspaper chain Kav.
Another problem: Shas and UTJ joining a government that embarks on another disengagement is something that is conceivable. It is hard to imagine the National Union doing the same. The issue of the religious bloc will be much more meaningful if there is a possibility of forming a Netanyahu-Peretz government without Kadima. Will the ultra-Orthodox actually prefer to form a government with Netanyahu who is so detested by its constituents?
Kadima's strategists were not the only ones to put this election campaign to sleep. Shas' Eli Yishai also did so. The difference is that Kadima's people figured that the sleepier the election campaign was, the more seats they would win. Yishai knew that attacks against the rule of law, the Ashkenazi elite and immigrants from Russia could strengthen Shas. But his strategic objective was a return to legitimacy, even if it meant a loss of voters. He hopes to reap the fruits of the great restraint he displayed by gaining entry into the coalition and receiving the interior portfolio.
En route to a coalition with Kadima, Yishai has to climb down two trees, the tree of opposition to the disengagement and the tree of child allowances. Shas will search for a formula that will enable it to join the coalition despite Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's halakhic ruling forbidding unilateral withdrawals. If Olmert will want to keep Shas out of the government, it seems all he really needs is not to provide Shas with a ladder, for example requiring it to agree explicitly in writing to support the next disengagement. That is the problem when political positions are formulated using halakhic rulings. It is much harder to back out of them.
Last week, Rabbi Yosef convened an ultra-Orthodox press conference of sorts where he said, "I will not allow our representatives to return to the government until they restore the child allowances." UTJ officials are more pessimistic and perhaps also more realistic. "I have to be frank with the readers," said the chairman of the Knesset's Finance Committee, Yaakov Litzman in an interview with Mishpaha, "no party except for ours and Shas is even willing to discuss restoring the child allowances. A very complicated struggle lies ahead for us." The truth is that even before the ultra-Orthodox mention increasing the allowances, there remains the question of whether the next government will agree to drop the planned additional cuts in them. The National Union-National Religious Party has a particularly interesting alternative to the child allowances, that is granting men one income tax credit (which is worth around NIS 150) per child, as is currently done for women. The big advantage of this system is that contrary to the child allowances, income tax credits will be given only to those who work and will encourage ultra-Orthodox men to go out and find jobs.
Two for the price of one
During the coalition negotiations, Finance Ministry officials will surely be grateful that the budget did not pass prior to the elections. If the budget had passed, it would have been necessary to buy the parties' support two times, once during the outgoing government's term in office and once again when the new government is being formed. Now a coalition will be formed and the budget passed for the same price, a real bonus.
At a rally held several weeks ago MK Moshe Gafni of UTJ said his party would seek during coalition negotiations to appoint the head of the supports department in the attorney general's office, Attorney Amnon de Hartoch, as the ambassador to Switzerland. The chairman of the Hinuch Atzmai education network, Avraham Lazerson, chided de Hartoch last week and said that if he had been serving in the Ministry of Justice in Ben-Gurion's days, the independent education network would never have come into being, and all of the ultra-Orthodox would have become part of the Satmar sect [an anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox sect - S.I.]. De Hartoch, a religious man, and a close associate of Attorney General Menachem Mazuz, has in recent years become the supervisor ensuring the validity of state financial support for institutions. A series of decisions made by him increasingly limited politicians' freedom to discriminate in the distribution of allocations. Consequently UTJ discovered that it could not obtain some of the coalition funds it had arranged in the 2005 budget because they constituted unlawful discrimination. The ultra-Orthodox journalist Yossi Elituv argues against this backdrop that it is far more logical to conduct coalition negotiations with Justice Aharon Barak, Attorney General Mazuz and de Hartoch. The ultra-Orthodox promise that in the negotiations they will demand to attach to any budget agreement the legal means to implement them. But it is hard to imagine the Knesset enacting laws that will enable budgetary discrimination against the state-run education network. What is working against the ultra-Orthodox is actually one of their greatest budgetary accomplishments, the clause in the law of the foundations of the budget stipulating that the ultra-Orthodox education networks, Agudat Yisrael's Hinuch Atzmai and Shas' Maayan Hahinuch Hatorani, will receive the same allocations as the children in the state-run education system. It turns out that when it comes to coalition allocations, equality works against them, because the allocations create discrimination.
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