Analysis |

Ultra-Orthodox Minister's Resignation May Be the Beginning of the End of Netanyahu's Government

Minister Yaakov Litzman resigns, even though he thanks God daily for the coalition. Netanyahu, who is thought to have been considering calling early elections, is now trying to halt the unraveling

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Health Minister Yaakov Litzman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Jerusalem, Oct 23, 2017
Health Minister Yaakov Litzman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Jerusalem, Oct 23, 2017Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Until the train came along, no issue of religious principle has roused the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox politicians from their den. And what a cozy den they found this time: a prime minister who sees them as strategic partners and obeys virtually their every whim.

>> Ultra-orthodox minister resigns over Shabbat crisis

He gave them positions of power they couldn’t even have dreamed of. He canceled all the changes pushed through by Yair Lapid in the previous coalition. He showers them with endless government funding. For them, he will always have money; for them, he’ll always have a bit more than what they wanted.

They kept silent when railway work was done on Shabbat. They didn’t make an issue of the spread of commerce on Shabbat in Tel Aviv or at suburban malls. They lived in peace with soccer on Shabbat and with Ben-Gurion Airport, the electricity and water companies and the public broadcasting corporation, all of which work on Shabbat. As a bonus, they were enjoying the ongoing weakening of their Sephardi partner and rival, Shas, while they, the United Torah Judaism and Shabbat party, as the party is officially called, are maintaining their strength or even growing stronger (in the polls). If there is a heaven, it’s the current governing coalition.

To put all these benefits at risk over a practice that has existed for years – maintenance work at Israel Railways over Shabbat, which has always taken place and always will – is a piece of stupidity uncharacteristic of such savvy politicians, who usually know how to calculate their moves wisely. But here, the leader of the Gur Hasidic sect enters the picture.

The admor of Gur is the strongman of the Agudat Yisrael party, one of the two parties comprising the UTJ joint ticket. And Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, the party chairman, is the admor’s envoy for earthly affairs.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz aboard an Israel Railways train. Maintenance work on the trains, being carried out on Shabbat, could topple the government.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The admor, Rabbi Mordechai Alter, reportedly refuses even to meet with people who don’t observe Shabbat. That’s how important Shabbat is to him. But until now, he has known how to tolerate life itself. So what happened now? What suddenly bothers him so much about the essential work done on the railroad as to erase logic, a grasp of reality and realpolitik?

All the arguments made to the “rebbe” about the real world have crumbled in the face of his extremism, rejectionism and obstinacy: the risk to party members’ jobs and positions of power; the downfall of the dream coalition; the specter of Lapid, who is waiting in the wings; the threat to human life which could ensue from shutting down the railway for maintenance on weekdays; and the anger of Israel’s secular majority, which may be provoked into a reaction that will leave UTJ out of the next coalition, as happened in 2003 and 2013. The young admor, who is just 78, is deaf to all these pleas. And when the admor is unhappy, nobody in the coalition – whose component parties are all dying for it to continue – is happy.

On Sunday, Litzman will submit his resignation from the cabinet, having been forced to do so by the admor. He knows this is liable to be the first fallen brick that ultimately brings down the wall of the coalition for which he thanks God daily. If some solution enabling him to return to the Health Ministry isn’t found in the next few weeks, his resignation is liable to herald the beginning of the end of the fourth Netanyahu coalition.

Both MK Moshe Gafni – the head of UTJ’s other component party, Degel Hatorah, and Litzman’s partner in UTJ’s leadership (his post as chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee is equivalent to that of a minister) – and Interior Minister Arye Dery, the Shas leader, have so far remained on the sidelines, but they will soon be under pressure from the violent ultra-Orthodox media. It will make their lives a misery, as only it can.

Netanyahu, who is thought to have been considering calling early elections himself on account of the police investigations against him, is now trying to halt the process of the unraveling of the coalition. But if he wants to survive politically, he cannot be seen as having capitulated to ultra-Orthodox coercion, especially on a transportation issue which is undoubtedly one of life and death.

On the other hand, the ultra-Orthodox are his preferred partners. Thus after the next elections, they will rush right back into each other’s arms – and then, too, the railroad will need work on Shabbat, so the whole story will begin again.

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