Beneath Show of Support, Haredi Leaders Quietly Prepare for the Day After Netanyahu

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Litzman (C) with other UTJ members earlier this month
Litzman (C) with other UTJ members earlier this monthCredit: Ohad Zwigenberg

While leaders of the ultra-Orthodox parties continue to publicly state that they would not join an "anti-Netanyahu" government, behind closed doors, the parties continue to examine their options as Israel attempts to form a government after its fourth election in under four years.

The leaders of United Torah Judaism reiterated Tuesday they wouldn’t join an alternative government should Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fail to form a coalition. UTJ leader Moshe Gafni and Construction and Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman declared their willingness to go in to the opposition if Yamina leader Naftali Bennett or Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid head Israel’s next government.

Despite these statements, the heads of ultra-Orthodox parties continue to hold talks with leaders of the anti-Netanyahu bloc. A source familiar with the negotiations said that Shas’ Arye Dery and New Hope’s Gideon Sa’ar met after the March 23 election, and that Gafni and Lapid are set to meet on Monday. According to that source, “the only one boycotting Lapid is Litzman.” The source further stated that “it’s clear to everyone that if an alternative government is formed, there shouldn’t be anything, in principle, that would prevent cooperation.”

Gafni told Kan Bet public radio on Monday his party would sit in the opposition rather than join with Netanyahu's rivals. “It’s not as if when it’s convenient for us, we’re here, and when it’s not convenient, we’re there,” Gafni said. “If necessary, we’ll move to the opposition, as [we did with] the government in which Yair Lapid was finance minister and Bennett was education minister.” He said “we will back whichever decision Likud makes,” arguing that’s what the public wants.

UTJ party leader Moshe Gafni with party member Ori Meklov last month at the President's ResidenceCredit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Even if Bennett, as a potential prime minister in a new coalition government, offered United Torah Judaism a commitment to maintain the status quo on religious issues, the party would still prefer to go into opposition, Gafni said. “Our position is unambiguous, and it’s not subject to change based on the mood or prevailing reality,” he said.

Litzman also maintained his loyalty to Netanyahu in public interviews. “I have to say it outright: Me sitting with Lapid and Lieberman is day dreaming,” Litzman told a business conference in Eilat. “I’m not going to sit with them. There will not be any coalition with Lapid or Lieberman. Only with Netanyahu, all the way.”

Litzman added, “We have gratitude for Netanyahu, and we also have qualms that we keep private,” hinting at the backing Netanyahu gave Religious Zionism party leader Bezalel Smotrich during the election campaign, which drew some support away from United Torah Judaism.

Shas leader Dery also publicly reiterated his steady support of Netanyahu at the Knesset on Monday. Dery said that should the bill proposing direct vote for prime minister become law, he would order Shas voters to back Netanyahu – but accept any outcome.

Under the surface, lawmakers from ultra-Orthodox parties aren’t discounting the possibility of sitting in an alternative government – should one ever be formed – though they believe that outcome is highly unlikely.

“The ultra-Orthodox parties can’t discuss it now, so as not to harm their integrity as the ones safeguarding Netanyahu,” said one lawmaker who asked not to be named. According to him, “should the [anti-Netanyahu] bloc make it to 61 seats, and the chances of that happening are low, there could be an opening for ultra-Orthodox parties to join such a government down the road.”

When considering a scenario where the ultra-Orthodox parties join an alternative government, United Torah Judaism and Shas members would most likely sit in the opposition at first, until the new coalition would complete the legislation of a new army draft law according to Avigdor Lieberman’s proposal.

Both parties publicly oppose it, but acknowledge the need for it. “Lieberman could boast passing it and not giving in to the ultra-Orthodox, and then may even be less bothered by sitting together with the ultra-Orthodox parties,” said the same lawmaker. However, one of the anti-Netanyahu bloc leaders told Haaretz that “for now, any link-up with Haredi parties seems highly unlikely.”

Shas also dismisses the possibility of defecting to the anti-Netanyahu bloc. Dery is putting all his energy into promoting his joint initiative with Netanyahu to hold direct election for prime minister without dissolving the Knesset. Netanyahu, fully realizing coalition talks have hit a dead end, now focuses on shaping the country’s fifth back-to-back election cycle.

He and Dery assess that parties, both on the left and the right, would rather not start a massive campaign at the moment of truth, which could risk any achievements they’ve made in the last election. They hope that it would become clear there’s no majority for a pro-change coalition, and then, supposedly, lawmakers would prefer backing the bill, which would save them another election and allow run for prime minister alone, rather than the entire parliament.

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