Coalition Math: Settlers In, ultra-Orthodox Jews Out

The Haredim feel they were at war and lost in the negotiations to form a new government. And what of the rest of the Israeli public?

“A declaration of war on the Torah world” is how one ultra-Orthodox newspaper summed up the new government. Other Haredi media reflect a similar tone, one that indicates loathing for the new coalition and a deep rift with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In the end, the prime minister couldn’t even keep his feeble promise to Shas leader Eli Yishai that Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar would remain education minister. “The only cabinet member who, if he wants to be fair, can look after the Haredim even in times of trouble and hardship,” wrote one Haredi paper.

In calling this coalition “a declaration of war,” the Haredim hit the nail on the head. The agreements between Habayit Hayehudi, Yesh Atid and Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu published on Friday clearly show that issues connected with the Haredi sector − such as the military draft − were key points in setting up a new government.

Even before the agreements were published, the ultra-Orthodox Hamodia newspaper waxed nostalgic over the good things that had been obtained through previous governments: Housing Minister Ariel Atias achieved the unbelievable by allocating the Haredi public an entire city, along with prime conditions and sweeping benefits, like NIS 100,000 for couples buying a new home.

If the impact of this government on the Haredim seems clear, everything else looks much more vague. Some provisions, however, if implemented, have raised the hopes of certain other sectors.

More religion

As expected, much of the agreement with Habayit Hayehudi deals with religious matters. Although there had been talk in the past of abolishing this ministry, the current government will maintain it − but without its own full-time minister. ‏(Habayit Hayehudi chairman Naftali Bennett will fill this and many other posts, while a deputy minister from his party will be appointed to oversee the ministry’s day-to-day affairs.‏)

Among the changes expected in the ministry are the establishment of a Jewish identity administration, the transfer of jurisdiction over the holy sites from the Tourism Ministry to the Religious Services Ministry, and oversight over the conversion apparatus. The agreement also deals with how the chief rabbis ‏(who are currently Haredi‏) are chosen and Habayit Hayehudi’s influence over the process. Budgeting for the state religious school system is also subject to change.

Shmita responsibility

The ministry will gain responsibility for issues relating to shmita ‏(the sabbatical year in the Land of Israel, according to Jewish law, during which the land is left fallow‏).

Gush Katif evacuees ‏(removed in the 2005 Gaza disengagement‏) will also benefit from having a minister from Habayit Hayehudi appointed to head the ministerial committee charged with providing them with assistance.

Bennett, who seemed for a day or two to be on track to become finance minister, apparently wants to build himself an economic empire parallel to the Finance Ministry and wants his supporters to understand what he does. That may explain his decision to change the name of the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry to the Economic and Trade Ministry, which he will head. But it’s still somewhat disconcerting that the economically important terms “industry” and “labor” are being abandoned while “trade,” of all things, remains.

Bennett will also carry the longest title in the government: “Economics and Trade Minister, Religious Services Minister, Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Minister” − and the longest list of jobs. In addition to his positions at the Religious Affairs Ministry, in the cabinet, on the diplomatic negotiating team, and on the ministerial committee for privatization, he will have another couple of tasks: The National Civil Service Administration − which will receive a special budget for expanding civil service employment among Haredim - is to be transferred to his Economics and Trade Ministry. The Jerusalem Affairs Ministry, which he’s also going to head, will gain budgets and programs. The very busy Bennett will also be charged with submitting a plan for promoting small businesses.

Behind Bennett’s takeover of economic matters is his desire to tackle business concentration, increase competition and cut the cost of living. And according to the coalition agreement, it seems it’s all in his hands: If Bennett comes up with a good, viable plan, it will work. If he doesn’t, there won’t be any progress at all. Bennett will also chair the cabinet’s subcommittee on these issues while Netanyahu will chair the socioeconomic cabinet.

The new government will have few ministers of a Mizrahi background, and perhaps this is why the periphery, home to many poorer Israelis of Middle Eastern origin, was allocated just one clause in Yesh Atid’s agreement. “The government will consider legislation for dividing economic revenues between the local authorities and regional councils based on criteria to be established under law,” states clause 41. What that means is: At this stage it seems the rich councils can rest easy. For years this matter has been under consideration and nothing’s happened. It won’t be easy for Meir Cohen of Yesh Atid, the new Social Affairs Minister, to turn this anemic clause into a genuine revolutionary change.

Catering to the autistic

Israel has hundreds of thousands of people with disabilities who need to be cared for and hundreds of thousands of elderly who can barely make ends meet. But only the autistic were given a special clause in the coalition agreement. A “bill to promote and integrate people with autism into the community” is appended to the pact. It is hoped that such attention will also be given to other populations in need.

In contrast to the Haredi sector, which Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid accused of gobbling up the middle class’ money, the settlements aren’t mentioned anywhere in the agreements. Neither did the peace process apparently occupy too much of the negotiating teams’ attention: “Peace” is mentioned in just one clause, where it states that a representative of Yesh Atid will join Hatnuah leader Tzipi Livni on the diplomatic negotiating squad.

An inter-ministerial committee for formulating a plan to fight racism will shortly be established. Holocaust survivors are promised a budgetary increase. And following the recommendation of the state comptroller, the number of local water companies will be reduced.

Tomer Appelbaum
Hadar Cohen