Behind Bennett's Budding Bromance With Israel's ultra-Orthodox Health Minister

Yaakov Litzman is not only the current government's brightest star, but his loathing for Yair Lapid, Bennett's potential foe in the next election, is exceptional in Israel's political landscape.

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman and Education Minister Naftali Bennett at a meeting in Arad.
Yehoshua Ashkenazi, Arad Spokesman

Barring any surprises, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation will soon discuss a government bill to ensure full funding for ultra-Orthodox schools even if they don’t teach the core curriculum.

The amendment would repeal a reform instituted by the previous education minister, Shay Piron, who cut funding for ultra-Orthodox schools that don’t teach English and math. Current Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who has championed math education, may have trouble explaining why he has different standards for the ultra-Orthodox, but he isn’t expected to oppose the bill.

Granted, this bill was promised to the ultra-Orthodox parties in the coalition agreement, but it has been delayed for over a year, in large part by Bennett. Its advancement now is one of the fruits of a new alliance – between Bennett, chairman of the religious Zionist Habayit Hayehudi party, and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, a Gur Hasid who chairs the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party.

The Ministerial Committee for Legislation was supposed to discuss a version of the bill sponsored by MK Moshe Gafni (UTJ) this past Sunday, but it was postponed. The Bennett-Litzman alliance explains both why that bill was dropped from the agenda and why another will soon replace it.

The new best friends have been publicizing their romance, especially in the ultra-Orthodox community. They make working visits together, are photographed and interviewed together and praise each other in interviews. When the microphones are off, they speak regularly about political issues. The entry into the coalition of Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party isn’t expected to weaken this alliance, which both sides define as strategic and long-term.

In recent weeks, the two ministers visited Arad, where Bennett pledged to help Gur Hasidim who are fighting city hall and some of their non-Orthodox neighbors over budgets and real estate. In a joint interview with the ultra-Orthodox weekly Bakehila three weeks ago, Litzman termed Bennett, “my ally and the ultra-Orthodox community’s ally.” About 10 days ago, in an unusual and significant move, the rabbinic leader of the Gur Hasidim hosted Bennett’s senior advisor, Tal Gan-Zvi, a religious Zionist who was the new couple’s chief matchmaker.

The alliance is expected to last at least until the next election, whether that takes place in 2019, as scheduled, or tomorrow morning. For both sides, this is the reverse of the old alliance between Bennett and Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid. Both Bennett and Litzman see the secular Lapid as a rival, each for his own reasons, and want a strong political partner to help oppose him.

Bennett is also preparing for the possibility that someday, perhaps as soon as the next election, he might be running against Lapid for prime minister and would need coalition partners. Why Litzman? First, his loathing for Lapid is exceptional in Israel’s political landscape, and it doesn’t matter how often Lapid publicly repents his sins against the ultra-Orthodox. Litzman’s only public gesture toward Lapid in recent years was to remove a piece of clothing after Lapid touched it in the Knesset. So, if you want to gamble on someone not returning Lapid’s phone calls after the next election, try Litzman.

Polls showing Litzman as the current government’s brightest star are also an asset from Bennett’s perspective. This year, serving for the first time as a full minister, Litzman represented the government at a Memorial Day ceremony at the Kiryat Gat military cemetery, where he delivered a Zionist speech full of empathy for the bereaved families that would have made jaws drop in Gur synagogues. His statesmanlike behavior, his hatred for Lapid and the fact that he will never be competing for Habayit Hayehudi voters all make Litzman an ideal partner for Bennett.

As for Litzman, he hopes the new alliance will thwart any revival of the Bennett-Lapid bromance and signal to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and others that Agudat Yisrael – the Hasidic party which, together with the Lithuanian party Degel Hatorah, comprises the UTJ joint ticket – has other political options. But the alliance also gives him immediate benefits, by enabling him to score points with the ultra-Orthodox community at the expense of his partner/rival Gafni, head of UTJ’s Lithuanian faction.

The Litzman-Gafni relationship recently hit a new low due to a long list of disputes over the internal division of power between UTJ’s Lithuanian and Hasidic factions and rotation deals among these factions in the Knesset, local governments and other institutions.

Two weeks ago, Gafni declared in the ultra-Orthodox paper Mishpacha that the partnership between Degel Hatorah and Agudat Yisrael had ended. His list of accusations included Litzman’s new alliance with Bennett. Litzman, he charged, “is friends with people who have destroyed the Torah world” and has abandoned ultra-Orthodox interests on issues like religious legislation and appointments of rabbinical court judges. To obtain a few benefits for the Hasidic community, Gafni thundered, Litzman is willing “to sell anything.”

What will happen now that Lieberman’s party is entering the coalition? Both Bennett and Lieberman are to Netanyahu’s right on diplomatic and security issues, but they disagree on issues of religion and state. Lieberman has promised not to upset the Haredim too much, but both have big appetites. Once the school funding bill passes, the ultra-Orthodox have a long list of other demands, including income support payments for married yeshiva students, additional funding for yeshivas and solutions to the Haredi housing crisis.

On Saturday night Litzman was surprised to discover that a member of his party, Deputy Education Minister Meir Porush, was ready to resigning his UTJ Knesset seat to make way for the next on the party list, Yaakov Asher of Degel HaTorah. Litzman was furious. But after Gafni’s bill on core curriculum was removed, Litzman will be delighted to share credit with Porush for the new bill on the same subject.