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Ultra-Orthodox to Feel the Blow as Unprecedented Power in Israeli Government Ends

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Ultra-Orthodox Knesset members have been coalition partners in most governments since Israel was founded in 1948, and in almost every government since Likud first came to power in 1977. However, the Haredi presence in the government that ended Sunday was greater than them all.

The Haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, with 16 Knesset seats between them, together held nine powerful positions in what was almost an ultra-Orthodox utopia: There were five Haredi ministers, three deputy ministers and a chairman of the powerful Knesset Finance Committee, providing the ultra-Orthodox parties with political power the likes of which they had never experienced before.

Many times senior Haredi politicians were said to have promoted policies in their ministries that benefited the entire population, yet all nine Haredi power brokers are also finishing what was an especially productive term for both their voters and fellow travelers with plenty of government funds, jobs and other sorts of patronage for their confidants.

Alongside the Haredi world's struggle against their inclusion in the military draft and matters of principle regarding religion and state, there is another price no less painful they will pay as the incoming government takes office: When they take their seats on the opposition benches, they will be lamenting not only the "harm" the new government will do to the Torah world but also more temporal, material losses.

One significant financial blow the Haredim will feel will be to their education system. According to the coalition agreement from 2009, the annual budget for all of Israel's yeshivas stands at NIS 975 million per year. The size of that budget allotment will now be in question.

However, the most significant ministries controlled by the Haredim were those of the interior and health.

Interior control

The greatest source of leverage for any interior minister is the control they exercise over local government budgets. Outgoing Interior Minister Eli Yishai (Shas) used this leverage more than once to influence district planning and building committees when important construction plans were for up for discussion. Yishai would call the committee chairmen to order, in large part for real estate projects targeted to the Haredi community, and they almost always responded positively.

Beyond planning issues, a large portion of the Interior Ministry's "reserve" funds were earmarked for the budget needs of predominately Haredi cities during Yishai's term in office. Yishai also expanded the issuing of discounts on municipal property taxes mostly to the Haredi public. The Interior Ministry grants municipal property tax discounts every year totaling close to NIS 1.7 billion, in comparison to total tax receipts of NIS 7.5 billion.

Yishai also found ways use his office to influence matters of religion and state. The most conspicuous case was summer daylight savings time, when clocks were moved back one hour in October before Yom Kippur in what was construed as an attempt at making observance of Yom Kippur easier for religious Jews.

The Interior Ministry under Yishai also made it difficult for individuals who were not considered Jewish according to halakha to immigrate to Israel.

Health system in need of rehabilitation

UTJ's Yaakov Litzman has controlled Israel's Health Ministry as deputy minister for the past four years (for ideological reasons he refused to serve as a full minister, but led the ministry in practice). As Litzman leaves his position a large question remains over the implementation of his centerpiece policy of publicly funded dental care for children. The policy he implemented currently provides dental care for children up to the age of 12 at clinics belonging to Israel's four nationwide health maintenance organizations.

Litzman has set a goal of gradually expanding the policy's coverage to include dental care for children up to age 18 and basic care for the elderly aged 65 and up.

Claims of the detrimental Haredi influence in the health system were heard from time to time during Litzman's time at the ministry. About a year ago, for example, he attempted to intervene to change the construction plans for safe rooms at the Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon. Litzman's decision was said to have been influenced by Haredi opposition to the excavation of ancient graves near the hospital and a plan by a non-profit affiliated with the Gur Hasidic group to open a competing hospital in nearby Ashdod.

It appears likely that the next health minister will also have to rehabilitate the health system's program for organ transplants because, despite figures showing an increasing number of people filling out organ donor cards, Israel's organ shortage is expected to remain severe in 2013. During his term at the Health Ministry, Litzman balked at promoting organ transplants, which is a sensitive topic among the Haredi public.

Housing Ministry's unbalanced criteria

About three months ago, the Supreme Court examined criteria for government housing assistance, a hot topic especially since the social protests of 2011 in which the public took to the streets over the cost of living, including the high cost of housing.

Justice Isaac Amit described the decision making that ensued in the government over housing assistance criteria: "There were demonstrations. After that, the Trajtenberg committee report. The government made declarations. There was an agreement signed with the finance minister over the criteria, and then out came an entirely different suitcase. Someone opened the suitcase and changed things inside."

Maybe no one knows what exactly happened, but it's not hard to guess: Housing and Construction Minister Ariel Atias of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party developed the criteria. Unsurprisingly, they were tailored to benefit ultra-Orthodox couples, many of whom marry young: The criteria gave preference to the number of years that the couples had been married over military service and employment.

This was just a sample of what Atias did for his constituents. It was also Shas, led by Interior Minister Eli Yishai and Atias, who along with operatives from other ultra-Orthodox factions pushed to make Harish an ultra-Orthodox town. During his term as housing minister, Atias did a lot to encourage building of ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Beit Shemesh as well.

Unsurprisingly, the Central Bureau of Statistics has reported that while most cities with large populations of middle-class young couples saw fewer residential construction starts in 2012, in predominantly ultra-Orthodox Beit Shemesh the numbers shot up by 180 percent.

Now everything that Atias has done for his constituency is at risk. Will the new government really abide by its rhetoric over equal sharing of the national burden? We'll soon see.

Finance Committee heads had their hands on the faucet

For years, ultra-Orthodox MKs chaired the Knesset Finance Committee. While they cooperated with the government and helped to pass the state budget, they knew how to pressure the government into routing funds to Haredi endeavors.

Chairmanship of the committee is a bargaining chip in coalition negotiations, considered to be on the same level as a ministerial portfolio. The truth is that the Finance Committee chairperson is more powerful than many government ministers, and the Finance Ministry must seek out his/her approval in order to pass the state budget and related laws, directives, regulations, tax increases and duties.

The committee chairperson has their hand on the faucet when it comes to the budget. Because of this, throughout the years, the finance minister has often had to provide special grants in order to get initiatives passed.

Finance Committee chairmen Moshe Gafni and his predecessor Yaakov Litzman, both from United Torah Judiasm, were considered active, diligent and professional, who supported the government's initiatives in the committee. During his term as committee chairperson, Litzman was called the Finance Ministry's "star pupil" more than once. Gafni was very loyal to the government and the treasury, even more than some Likud MKs.

Last year, Gafni thwarted a plan to chop NIS 350 million off the Finance Ministry's budget.

Allocations to the ultra-Orthodox were achieved in other ways as well, on an almost weekly basis. The Finance Ministry would often present large, fat binders teeming with thousands of changes to the budget. These would contain orders to allocate funds to various ultra-Orthodox institutions within the education, religious affairs, or social affairs ministries.

Shahar Ilan, vice president of Hiddush, an organization that advocates for religious equality, claimed that additions to the budget for religious purposes made by the Finance Committee in 2011 totaled almost NIS 850 million, of which NIS 209 million was labeled "coalition transfers."

Over the years, the annual budget for ultra-Orthodox institutions under the welfare and education ministries shot up from NIS 20 million to NIS 60 million.

Dan Even and Zvi Zrahiya contributed to this report.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

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