Are ultra-Orthodox and Arab Politicians Forging an Alliance?

Cooperation between Arab and ultra-Orthodox lawmakers on the conscription bill has raised speculation about a closer relationship

File photo: Lawmakers Ahmad Tibi and Yaakov Litzman in the Knesset.
Olivier Fitoussi

At around midnight Monday, the Knesset was packed. Almost every MK had shown up for the tense roll-call vote on a new conscription bill.

But the chairs of the Joint List’s 13 Knesset members remained empty. By agreement with the two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, the Arab MKs voted with their feet on an issue that had been declared a no-confidence motion rather than participation in the attempt to topple the government.

“This was a difficult dilemma for Joint List members,” said a Shas MK involved in the negotiations. “Until the last minute, it wasn’t clear whether Yesh Atid would support the bill or vote against it. The Arab MKs felt they could find themselves in a situation where their votes could topple the government. On the other hand, they understood that even though Shas and UTJ voted against the bill, it was important to them that it pass, so it could be changed later.”

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Most of the ultra-Orthodox MKs waited outside the main hall throughout the first round of the roll-call vote. Only after it became clear that the centrist Yesh Atid party was supporting the bill and the Joint List MKs were absent did ultra-Orthodox MKs enter the hall and vote against it.

This cooperation between Arab and ultra-Orthodox MKs is nothing new, even though the former are in the opposition and the latter in the governing coalition. Time after time in recent years, they have joined together with their colleagues on the other side of the divide to advance shared values. 

But this connection seems to have grown closer in recent months due to a wave of government-sponsored legislation evincing a lack of tolerance for Israel’s minorities – the nation-state bill (defining Israel as the state of the Jewish people), a bill to restrict the muezzin’s call from mosques, a law enabling the ouster of sitting MKs and a failed effort to amend the Knesset’s bylaws to make it harder for the Joint List, which consists of three different parties, to run on a joint ticket again in the next election. 

Joint List MKs have been careful not to intervene in issues relating to Judaism. Thus, for instance, they didn’t get involved in legislation to regulate ritual baths, the appointment of rabbis or the conscription of ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students. 

They have also actively helped the ultra-Orthodox parties on some issues. In the previous Knesset, for instance, MKs Jamal Zahalka and Haneen Zoabi played an active role in discussions on making higher education more accessible to the ultra-Orthodox. 

'We trust each other'

Neither United Torah Judaism  nor Joint List MKs make any effort to hide the “brotherhood of the weak” that has developed between them. But they also say they’re still a long way from a situation where this alliance of non-Zionist minorities would determine the country’s future.

MKs Ahmad Tibi (Joint List) and Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) appear to be the main axis uniting the three parties involved in this cooperation – Joint List, UTJ and Shas.  

“I’ve known Gafni for almost 15 years. We trust each other,” Tibi said. “We’ve never caught the ultra-Orthodox MKs making racist statements against the Arab community. And they’re more cautious about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

A Shas MK who asked to remain anonymous said, “The Joint List knows how to get along very well with the Franks” – a derogatory term for Jews of Middle Eastern or North African origin, who are Shas’ main constituency. “We have shared cultural traits that enable us to create a bridge and forge a common language.”

All three parties insist that they have never forged any explicit deals. For instance, they said, there was no deal linking the Arab MKs’ abstention on the conscription bill to the ultra-Orthodox MKs’ opposition to the muezzin bill. 

“The word ‘deal’ is incorrect,” Tibi said. “There’s a commonality of interests and a personal, human and political dialogue. We’re far from the stereotypes of the two groups that characterize the other in Israeli society – the ultra-Orthodox and the Arabs. In the debate on the conscription bill, I said we won’t be part of a vote on who hates the ultra-Orthodox more.”

MK Uri Maklev (United Torah Judaism) agreed with Tibi’s description. “There’s more appearance than substance to this issue. There’s no joint axis and no more cooperation with the Joint List than with other parties,” he said.

“The reality is that we aren’t on a collision course with the Arab parties. We have no desire to poke a finger in their eye. We aren’t the ones in the coalition screaming about nationalist issues.”  

Gafni and Tibi often describe the relationship between the parties as “the issue closest to our hearts.” “We show understanding for one another regarding the issue closest to the heart of the other party," Tibi said. "That’s what happened in the case of the muezzin bill and the nation-state bill.”

A question of prayer

One outstanding achievement was preventing passage of the muezzin bill, which was designed to restrict the use of mosque loudspeakers.

One outstanding achievement was preventing passage of the muezzin bill, which was designed to restrict the muezzins’ ability to use loudspeaker systems in the mosques.

“We opposed the muezzin bill because it stirred disproportionate turmoil,” Maklev said. “It wasn’t simply a demand, it was a blow to their method of prayer. We're very conscious of religious requirements.”

This shared achievement actually began with a confrontation. In the preliminary vote in March, the ultra-Orthodox MKs adhered to coalition discipline and voted for the bill, despite the understandings with the Joint List.

“There was a coalition problem,” Maklev said. “At one point they asked us to support the bill in the preliminary vote in order not to shake up the coalition, and promised that the bill wouldn’t be advanced beyond that.”

Tibi was angry at the decision and publicly criticized the ultra-Orthodox. “Every Shabbat has a motzei Shabbat," he warned, referring to the end of Shabbat each Saturday evening.

The retaliation wasn’t long in coming. In the first of three votes in the Knesset, Joint List voted against the bill preventing the opening of most grocery and convenience stores on Shabbat, instead of leaving the hall as they had done until then. After this confrontation, Shas and United Torah Judaism decided to take a tough stance against the coalition regarding the muezzin bill.

Twice in recent months, prominent MKs from the two ultra-Orthodox parties faced the cameras and said they would block the bill. “I told you that you can cut off my hand, and we won’t vote in favor of the muezzin bill,” said  MK Yitzhak Vaknin (Shas) at the Knesset Finance Committee – at Tibi’s request.

About two weeks ago at the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, the coalition discovered that there was no chance of advancing the bill due to the opposition of the ultra-Orthodox parties. The sponsor of the bill, MK Moti Yogev (Habayit Hayehudi), was angry at the alliance that had stymied his efforts. 

“I told Gafni to look for Ahmad Tibi in order to complete a minyan” prayer quorum, Yogev said in an interview last week.

The most significant test case for the “brotherhood of the weak” is expected this month. In about two weeks the prime minister plans to try to pass the nation-state bill in its second and third votes. 

In recent months the law was stripped of most of its clauses, and now only two principal ones remain – one enabling the establishment of communal settlements for Jews only (or for any other community), and one downgrading Arabic to “special” status from official-language status.

“In the current version, it’s a bill designed mainly to insult and humiliate Israeli Arabs,” said one Joint List MK.

In recent days the coalition leaders have been putting heavy pressure on the parties. Despite expectations, the ultra-Orthodox parties have a hard time promising that they will continue in their opposition to the bill.

But as one MK put it, “There’s still a long way to go before approval of the nation-state bill.”