Analysis |

Netanyahu’s Partnership With the ultra-Orthodox Is Facing Its Greatest Challenge Yet

As Netanyahu fights his fourth battle for survival in two years in an election overshadowed by just one issue – COVID-19 – the ultra-Orthodox community’s brazen flouting of the lockdown is causing him deep damage

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
Some of the ultra-Orthodox mourners gathering gor the funeral of Rabbi Meshulam Dovid Soloveitchik in Jerusalem, January 31, 2021.
Some of the ultra-Orthodox mourners gathering gor the funeral of Rabbi Meshulam Dovid Soloveitchik in Jerusalem, January 31, 2021.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has many qualities as a politician but sticking to agreements has never been one of them. This entire election is happening because he couldn’t be trusted to remain faithful to the “rotation” deal signed with Defense Minister Benny Gantz – despite it being designed to be watertight, he managed to exploit the one loophole in it.

Netanyahu has repeatedly enticed the leaders of other parties into his coalitions only to destroy their political careers once they’re there. Within his own party, he’s done everything to suppress aspiring leaders with an independent standing of their own by either forcing them to the sidelines and out of the party, or by buying them off with an ambassador’s post far away. But he has had one political alliance that has persevered and even flourished.

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The verse in Ecclesiastes – “And if a man prevail against him that is alone, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken” – could have been written about Netanyahu’s pact with the two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism. Ever since he returned to power in 2009, they have stuck by each other. Even after the 2013 election, when the Yair Lapid-Naftali Bennett “brotherhood pact” forced Netanyahu to form a coalition without Shas and UTJ, they kept on yearning for each other and Netanyahu was relieved to dissolve his government after two short years and invite his old allies back into the fold.

In his speeches, Netanyahu calls the two Haredi parties “Likud’s natural allies,” overlooking the fact that before 2009, the ultra-Orthodox had routinely negotiated with and often joined Likud’s rivals instead. But the Haredim have also forgotten the days when they were free agents. After the second election of 2019, when Gantz’s Kahol Lavan emerged as the largest party, they meekly joined “the bloc,” the group of right-wing and religious parties that refused to negotiate with Gantz and insisted that only Netanyahu could serve as prime minister.

These are the most difficult days for the alliance. As Netanyahu fights his fourth battle for survival in two years in an election overshadowed by just one issue – COVID-19 – the ultra-Orthodox community’s brazen flouting of the lockdown is causing him deep damage. Last week, when the Haredi parties opposed a law that would increase the fines for violating lockdown restrictions, Netanyahu raised his voice in a call with their leaders, shouting that “Likud’s rule is in danger.”

In a poll carried out for Channel 12 News last week, 61 percent of voters said they don’t want to see the next government include ultra-Orthodox parties and only 22 percent remain in favor of their inclusion. While the figure of 78 percent of center-left voters rejecting the Haredim was to be expected, even among right-wing voters, a majority of 52 percent were against having them in the next government (and only 33 percent were in favor).

Just about every party leader in the anti-Netanyahu bloc, including even Bennett and Gideon Sa’ar – who until now were wary of antagonizing the ultra-Orthodox, who they hoped could join them in a coalition instead of Netanyahu – has joined the chorus of criticism against the Bibi-Haredi alliance. While Gantz failed to form a coalition of his own after the past two elections due to resistance on the opposition’s right flank to forming a government with the support of the Joint List, polls now indicate that there could be an anti-Netanyahu coalition in the next Knesset that would hold a narrow majority even without the Joint List and the Haredi parties.

The alliance is fully aware of this prospect. Netanyahu knows that his reluctance to enforce the lockdown on the Haredim is losing Likud support to its right-wing rivals. Shas and UTJ know that should Netanyahu fall, they could be left in the wilderness of the opposition while the new government would have a public mandate to make changes to the status quo on matters of state and religion. But they are not wavering.

On Sunday, during the weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu refused to single out the mass attendance at the funeral of Rabbi Meshulam Soloveitchik in Jerusalem, insisting instead that “it doesn’t matter whether it’s Haredim, secular people or Arabs. I regret that there are gatherings on all sides and in all these communities. It has to stop at once and we need to stop politicizing it.” No budging there. And neither has there been any indication whatsoever that the ultra-Orthodox leadership is even considering a shift in their loyalties to Sa’ar or Bennett.

Netanyahu’s uncharacteristic loyalty to his partners is at this point more simple to explain. He has lost nearly every other ally, with many senior figures in the religious-Zionist and settler groups, who were once dependable, having now defected to New Hope or Yamina, in the hope of ending his rule. He has been reduced to trying to unite the far-right slivers of Bezalel Smotrich’s National Union (now renamed Religious Zionism), Jewish Home and Otzma Yehudit in the hope of saving potential supporters from sinking into oblivion under the electoral threshold. Shas and UTJ are all he has left. Even if he was prepared to pivot against them, it would be much too late now.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset with Shas leader Arye Dery prior to the coronavirus outbreak, March 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

But the Haredi stance is more intriguing. For decades they kept themselves above the Likud-Labor divide, holding on to their kingmaker status. At so many points over the last two years they could have abandoned Netanyahu and ended his career, ensuring their share of power in the post-Bibi era. But they’ve held fast by his side. Even at this late stage, they could conceivably hand Sa’ar, who has been courting them, Netanyahu’s head on a platter as a dowry. But they prefer to risk going down with him.

There is nothing natural about this loyalty to the possible end. Though he tries to hide it, Netanyahu in his personal life is resolutely secular. He doesn’t keep kosher or observe Shabbat. He’s actually estranged from some of the religious members of his own family, including his daughter from his first marriage and his brother-in-law. Neither is there any reason to believe that the ultra-Orthodox would get a worse deal from Sa’ar if he were to become prime minister and they joined his government.

But there is a deeper bond between Netanyahu and the Haredi electorate and leadership. For a quarter of a century now, they have seen him thumb his nose at the “old elites” – the legal establishment, academia, media and the other “gatekeepers” – and while Netanyahu is an elitist himself, and has done little if anything to improve the lives of low-income Israelis like the Haredim, he has managed to convince them he is on their side against the elites.

It’s helped that over the past generation, the ultra-Orthodox masses have moved rightward. But that hasn’t made them more disposed to supporting Sa’ar or Bennett, who are to Netanyahu’s right on most issues. They don’t appeal to the Haredi sense of resentment like Netanyahu does.

To a large extent, the ultra-Orthodox leadership’s decision to throw their lot in with Netanyahu has been influenced by his connection to their constituents, but they have also established an unrivaled personal rapport with him.

With the departure of ex-Labor leader Amir Peretz from the Knesset, there will be only three veteran lawmakers remaining who were first elected in 1988: Netanyahu and the stalwart of Degel Hatorah, the “Lithuanian” (non-Hasidic) wing of UTJ, Moshe Gafni (the third is Likud’s Tzachi Hanegbi). Shas leader Arye Dery became a lawmaker only in 1992, but he was in national politics before them as one of the founders of Shas in 1984; by the time Netanyahu and Gafni entered politics, he was already the de-facto party leader as well as director general of the Interior Ministry (at 27!).

The third senior Haredi political leader, Yaakov Litzman, arrived on the scene in 1996 as the secretive representative of Rabbi Yaakov Alter, who became leader of the Gerrers, the largest and most powerful Hasidic court in Israel, just two months before Netanyahu was elected to his first term as prime minister. Litzman has been in the Knesset since 1999.

Netanyahu, Dery, Gafni and Litzman have been working together for a quarter of a century. In that time, Netanyahu has become the most powerful Israeli prime minister since David Ben-Gurion and his Haredi counterparts have become more influential than any previous generation of ultra-Orthodox politicians.

Since the death of Shas’ supreme spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in 2013, Dery is now the first politician to have complete control over a Haredi party, with the members of Shas’ Council of Torah Sages reduced to no more than rubber-stampers. Through the Interior Ministry, which he once again rules, he maintains a stranglehold on local government throughout Israel.

Gafni has also outlasted a succession of Lithuanian rabbis and is now relatively free to make his own decisions, having helped to install the detached Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky as Degel Hatorah’s nominal spiritual leader. As Knesset finance committee chair, he has a veto on all government spending. And Litzman, while remaining firmly at the service of his rebbe, has shown through his positions as health and now housing minister how a “sectorial” politician can exploit the resources of major spending ministries for his community’s narrow interests.

The weekly protest in front of the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem, January 23, 2021. The banner on the left, "Anxious about our fate," features a play on the Hebrew word for ultra-Orthodox.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Dery and Litzman, who are both facing corruption indictments of their own, also share a fear and hatred of the legal authorities with Netanyahu.

The only personal relationship that comes anywhere near to rivaling the longevity and intimacy of the Netanyahu-Dery-Gafni-Litzman axis was the one between Israel’s founders, the grandees of Mapai from the early years of the state until Ben-Gurion resigned in 1963 – and even that was between members of the same party and was much more fractious.

Under Netanyahu, the three partners have all enjoyed nearly complete freedom in their personal fiefdoms and have seamlessly coordinated the suppression of any legislation or government regulations that could harm their own and their rabbis’ agenda. He trusts them to an extent he would never trust any other politician. This level of harmony is not only unprecedented in Israeli politics, it could never be recreated under a different prime minister. If Netanyahu were to leave, his three old allies would come under increasing pressure from a younger generation of Haredi politicians to replace them as well.

The partnership currently ruling Israel is facing its greatest challenge, but it’s sticking together and won’t go out without a fight.

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