Netanyahu Is Losing the Fight Against the ultra-Orthodox on All Fronts

As the year comes to an end, the public's attention keeps being drawn to the prime minister, whose opponents want to pin the blame on him for Haredi exclusion of women, and whose allies are about to re-introduce a bill to delay Yair Lapid's entry into politics.

It's happening again. In the summer, it was the social-protest movement. In the fall, it was the hilltop youth rampaging at an army base. And now, in the winter, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing the outcry over the ultra-Orthodox exclusion of women.

"I didn't know, I didn't know," Netanyahu told the Likud ministers on Sunday. The culture war in Beit Shemesh has been underway for years. A week before, on Mount Carmel, he was the first to have identified, recruited and taken action. This time, he was the last to see, hear and know. It's not clear which is worse: that the prime minister doesn't know what's going on 20 minutes from his office, or that it takes a media frenzy for him to "instruct" the police to do their job.

Benjamin Netanyahu bus
Amos Biderman

His adversaries say that when he is prime minister, the evil forces come out in force, because they are responding to signals from the top. Netanyahu and his supporters accuse mysterious forces, left-wing elements, political strategists and anonymous donors of hatching a political scheme to besmirch him and create a new centrist, secular party.

"It's not by chance that there's a new story every day," one of the prime minister's aides said this week. "Someone is steering the stories and ensuring that the fire does not go out."

Apparently, narcissism and paranoia are essential for holding power.

Calculated risk

Last week, after Channel 2 News broadcast its story about the Beit Shemesh girl who was attacked by Haredi men for "modesty" offenses, Netanyahu realized he had to come out against the Haredim. It was a calculated risk: The ultra-Orthodox, least of all United Torah Judaism MKs, really don't like hearing complaints. Moshe Gafni screamed and threatened, Yaakov Litzman sent messages and Israel Eichler accused Netanyahu of treachery. But the party didn't leave the coalition. Netanyahu came across as vanquishing the Haredim, who in return savaged him in their media ("the weathervane leader" was the headline in the journal of Agudat Israel's Meir Porush ), but they all returned home safely to light Hanukkah candles.

Netanyahu has an unflattering record with the ultra-Orthodox, which includes whispering in the ear of kabbalist Rabbi Kedouri ("The left has forgotten what it is to be Jews" ) and a longtime alliance with them. One of the reasons he lost the election in 1999 was that the public was fed up with his right-wing and Haredi coalition. On election night in Rabin Square, the crowd shouted at prime minister-elect Ehud Barak: "Anyone but Shas!" Barak partnered with Shas anyway and was kicked out of office a year and a half later.

In 2003, when Ariel Sharon formed his second government, he left the Haredim out and very quickly became king of Israel. It's already a cliche to point out that Ehud Olmert gave his Haredi coalition partners everything they wanted and then some. That passed quietly, because Olmert conducted negotiations with the Palestinians. Netanyahu is doing only the former.

The extremists in Beit Shemesh and elsewhere don't vote. Certainly not for Likud. They don't recognize the state. But Netanyahu is besmirched by kowtowing to them more easily than previous prime ministers. He is trying terribly hard to be everyone's prime minister. You won't catch him making divisive remarks this term.

"These phenomena will not be, they will not be," he told the Likud ministers. Culture Minister Limor Livnat and others advised him not to rush to make public commitments, because the issue is complex. The ministers competed with one another in denouncing the Beit Shemesh assault. Netanyahu's chief of staff, Natan Eshel, a former senior National Religious Party official, noted that the national-religious movement also separates boys and girls in schools. Minister without Portfolio Benny Begin remarked that teachers at secular schools wear "immodest clothes," and that it bothers him.

"Well done," Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar said. "In one short meeting we have managed to cast aspersions on the Haredim, the national-religious and the secular. Not bad at all."

Will the anti-Haredi wave hurt Netanyahu, and if so, to what extent? It depends what the key issues are in the next elections. A civil agenda could be lethal for Netanyahu and Likud. A damage-control assessment by his bureau toward the end of the week concluded that the Haredi public's curses improved his standing among the general public. The Haredim don't vote for him anyway. After the elections, they will always join a right-wing government; they'll only partner with the center-left if it can form a government without them. And over the past three years, no surveys have found that the second scenario is likely.

Transparent agendas

Israel's leading female politicians moved like a migratory flock this week from a women-excluding city to a meeting against women's exclusion to a torchlight march against women's exclusion, and from there to the Knesset and so on and so forth. They spoke from the heart, but most readers won't be shocked to hear that all of them have transparent political agendas to promote.

Opposition leader Tzipi Livni (Kadima ) has seen her own and her party's popularity on the decline for months. She knows that quite a few members of her party want to oust her from the leadership. Livni hopes that the women's exclusion saga will do for her what the social-protest movement did for Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovich over the summer.

Not that things are easy for Yachimovich. You can't compare her prominence as an independent MK, kicking and legislating, to her current status as party head, handling unexciting internal party matters. She too had a bit of positive publicity this week, though she would be happy to avoid any event with Livni.

And this week there was no escaping Limor Livnat, who heads the government committee on the status of women. She erred badly by expressing understanding for women's exclusion as long as it happens purely in Haredi milieus. Even if what she said has a certain logic, this is not a message that a cabinet minister should be conveying. And as always with Livnat, it seems like she is less interested in striking at segregation than striking at Livni. That goes over well in Likud.

MK Zahava Gal-On is running for the Meretz leadership against MK Ilan Gilon. Her chances are pretty good, and the exclusion tsunami is good for her. As far as she is concerned, it can continue until Meretz's primaries are held in February. She is watching as Labor moves slowly rightward, toward the center. Kadima is already there, and only Meretz (or what remains of it ) will be left on the left, or what remains of it.

Livnat, as expected, strove to differentiate between the cause for protest and Netanyahu's coalition partners. Speaking in the Knesset Wednesday, Livni and Gal-On connected all the bad things that have been happening here lately - anti-democratic legislation, the "price tag" attacks and the protests over singing female soldiers - and the exclusion phenomenon, which did not pass over even Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, who refused to award a prize to two female scientists in his office. They hurled the whole package in Netanyahu's face, even though he was demonstratively immersed in a book by Yeshiva head Rabbi Haim Sabato recounting conversations with Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein.

It was actually Yachimovich, the salient opposition figure, who made a great effort to depoliticize the events in Beit Shemesh. "The phenomenon is grave, but it is not party-related and it is not political," she said. On another occasion she said, "I do not like the prevailing tone of a fire - 'brothers, the town is burning.' There is no need to mix everything together: Channel 10, the extremists who attacked Israeli soldiers and the exclusion of women."

Yachimovich was aiming straight at Livni, her rival for the center and the moderate left. She also launched a registration drive this week, aimed at recruiting the religious, the settlers and the Haredim to Labor. She is not looking to insult them.

Livni wants to bring back the left-leaning voters who abandoned her, some for Labor, some for Meretz. But whatever happens, she will always blame Netanyahu.

"Did you see how she stood there, with that scrawny torch?" Livni's rival in Kadima, MK Shaul Mofaz, said after Livni took part in the torchlight march for women's rights from the Supreme Court to the Knesset this week. For a professional soldier like Mofaz, "scrawny" is the ultimate insult.

Cooling off and shutting up

In less than two weeks, on January 11, the bill mandating that journalists take time off before entering politics will have its day. (It's been dubbed the "Yair Lapid law" for the popular television personality who is said to be considering a political run ). MKs Carmel Shama-Hacohen (Likud ) and Ronit Tirosh (Kadima ) submitted bills on the matter more than a year ago. Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee chairman MK David Rotem (Yisrael Beiteinu ) buried the bills, mostly because his party chairman, Avigdor Lieberman, opposed them.

Conventional wisdom had it that Lieberman wanted Lapid to enter the arena so he would erode Kadima's support, thus making Yisrael Beiteinu the Knesset's second largest party. Last week, a small voice from Lieberman's office ended the cooling-off period for the cooling-off law.

Why the change of heart? Lieberman knows Kadima has been losing popularity since the summer's protest movement broke out, followed by Yachimovich's election as Labor leader and Netanyahu's success in redeeming kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit. The secular public could express its anti-Haredi sentiment while voting. Lieberman doesn't need Lapid and his secular agenda. Polls are already giving Yisrael Beiteinu a three- to four-seat lead over Kadima. Lapid might erode not only Kadima but also Lieberman.

The committee is likely to pass the bill, which will call for a cooling-off period of at least one year. "On the face of it, this is consistent with the theory that speaks of a wave of anti-democratic, anti-media legislation," Shama-Hacohen said this week. "But you will be amazed to hear that the person who urged me to sponsor the legislation is a veteran journalist who spends a lot of time in the Knesset. Our interest is that the Knesset's left wing split into several factions. If Lapid's entry into politics ends up hurting Likud, it's not worth it. If we lose only one seat, it will be worth it. Anyway, that's my approach."

If the legislation advances, Lapid will have to make a decision. If he leaves journalism, he may wind up wasting a year. If not, he might miss the train. Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu are convinced they are doing the right thing. As one of Netanyahu's people told someone in Yisrael Beiteinu, "If worse comes to worst, we'll shut him up for a year."