Ultra-Orthodox Parties a Pawn in the Power Game Between Netanyahu and Minister Katz

It all started when ultra-Orthodox tweeters pummeled the Haredi parties for quietly agreeing to let train infrastructure works take place on Saturdays, dragging them into creating the crisis.

Yaakov Litzman of UTJ and Arye Dery of Shas.
Effi Sharir

As Shabbat ended, the heads of the ultra-Orthodox parties picked a policy of no comment to media organizations on the crisis over weekend work on the Israel Railways. It’s an effort to try to calm the whirlwind in which they are central players.

This was supposed to be a comfortable crisis from the standpoint of the ultra-Orthodox. Shabbat is a matter of values, an issue over which it would be fitting to break up the coalition government, unlike more narrow demands such as government funding for yeshivas or subsistence payments for the Haredim. But the two ultra-Orthodox parties in government, Shas and United Torah Judaism, are not ready to go that way. They are not considering breaking up the coalition, which from their point of view is ideal.

The ultra-Orthodox did not initiate this crisis and they have no plans to change the status quo on matters of religion and state. They, like Meretz and Yesh Atid, are acting in the roles designated for them in the Haredi vs. secular play that has been running in Israel for several decades. The internal political capital that Shas and UTJ stand to gain from surrendering to Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz and the Israel Railways is very marginal compared to the risks — and the risks are major.

The brouhaha over the work on the railways during the Jewish day of rest does damage to the statesmanlike image of the Haredi politicians and primarily provides political benefit to their major adversary, Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid, ahead of the next elections and in general. The crisis has already returned the subject of religion and state to the agenda, magnifying the voices of their opponents in the process, and placing UTJ and Shas in an inferior, defensive posture in advance of the next Shabbat crisis, which would involve greater principle than replacing signaling on some remote track. Next time it will be over grocery stores operating on Shabbat in Tel Aviv.

Shas and UTJ were pushed into this play unwillingly. Up until now, they have been exploited by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and by Transportation Minister Katz in their own political rivalry. For Katz, Netanyahu “surrendered” to the ultra-Orthodox and is ready to “sacrifice” thousands of soldiers who won’t be able to return to their bases by train. For Netanyahu, Katz is creating an unnecessary schism in the coalition and among the people.

The people who forced the politicians to create the crisis came from within the ultra-Orthodox community: It was Haredi journalists. It has been exactly eight months since the outbreak of another crisis which has yet to be resolved — the compromise to create a pluralistic prayer area at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Moshe Gafni and Yaakov Litzman of UTJ and Arye Dery of Shas were all informed on the Wall issue and quietly agreed to the arrangement that was developed by the government, but from the moment the ultra-Orthodox press sunk its teeth into the agreement that had been discreetly worked out, it collapsed.

It began on Twitter, the main arena of activity for media-savvy Haredim, and was followed by huge headlines. That dynamic made it clear that the era in which it was possible to settle things with a wink and a nod was over. That’s also what happened when it came to conducting railway repairs on Shabbat.

Ultra-Orthodox tweeters pummeled the Haredi parties for quietly agreeing to the work, even of a limited scope, and dragged them into creating the crisis. Last week, prominent commentator Yaakov Rivlin tweeted that what mattered to Haredi politicians was that there not be a crisis that would force them to give up the privileges of the coalition, while a young reporter for the Kikar Shabbat website, Yishai Cohen, tweeted about “the death of Haredi ideology.”

The ultra-Orthodox politicians are afraid. They are very aware of these tweets, which mark the line for all Haredi media. Last week, Litzman and Gafni invented a false crisis, on Friday they were threatening to resign.

The establishment of a committee for Sabbath issues was presented as an ultra-Orthodox achievement, when in fact it’s an obstacle. The committee is supposed to approve, with the active participation of the ultra-Orthodox parties, the desecration of Shabbat in public in Israel. Israel is full of institutionalized Sabbath desecration – in the ports, the Electric Corporation, the infrastructure and water companies. Only last week the public saw just a little of the work done here on Shabbat under the heading “essential work.” As long as it happens in the dark, in the amorphous realm of the status quo, the ultra-Orthodox can live with it. Now that the issue is at the top of the agenda, the ultra-Orthodox are likely to scream and shout, but the mechanism that demands a stamp of approval on every engineering project is unprecedented madness for every ultra-Orthodox rabbi and politician.

Are Dery or Litzman, or the chief rabbis of Israel, brave enough to sign a permit to conduct engineering work at Atlit, claiming that it is to save lives? That will not happen, certainly not when the committee’s decisions are open to scrutiny by the ultra-Orthodox public and their tweeters. Only if there is a little quiet here, will they be able to go back to winking.