The 18 MKs representing Israel's ultra-Orthodox parties have asked the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi party to help cancel budget cuts targeting yeshivas and religious institutions.
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In a letter Wednesday, the MKs committed not to join Benjamin Netanyahu's government if the prime minister drops Habayit Hayehudi from the coalition.
“As the vote on the budget and the Economic Arrangements Bill approaches, we turn to you to reverse the proposal to cut the budgets of yeshivas, Torah institutions and schools,” the MKs wrote. “We commit that, if voting with us results in your removal from the coalition, we will not enter the coalition in your place.”
The ultra-Orthodox parties – Shas and United Torah Judaism – approached Habayit Hayehudi after a period of tension over the religious-Zionist party's plans to reform the draft. The main disagreement is the decision for hesder-yeshiva students – who combine religious study with military service – to serve only 17 months, while Haredi conscripts would serve about two years.
“The state budget and concerns about the world of Torah learning are unsuited to [Shas chairman] Aryeh Deri’s gimmicks," a source in Habayit Hayehudi said. "On the other hand, it's encouraging that this time they didn’t call us the Gentile Home,” he said, referring to an earlier remark based on Habayit Hayehudi's name, which means the Jewish Home.
In the past year, Netanyahu’s aides have not concealed that he preferred a coalition with the Haredi parties. But Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid, which came in second in the January election, forced Netanyahu to favor Habayit Hayehudi and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah over Shas and United Torah Judaism. Still, Likud has not relinquished ideas about renewing its traditional partnership with the ultra-Orthodox parties.
Observers say Habayit Hayehudi could leave the coalition if Netanyahu launches intensive peace talks with the Palestinians. Likud sources say that in such a situation, Netanyahu would prefer to bring in the Haredi parties and Labor, though Wednesday's letter appears to preclude that option.
In another variant, Labor could join the coalition without the Haredi parties. In that case, though Shas has 11 Knesset seats and Habayit Hayehudi 12, Shas chief Deri could head the opposition because of the 18-strong Haredi MKs. Plus, it's unlikely left-wing Meretz or the Arab parties would support Bennett for the position.