In Benjamin Netanyahu’s final hours as prime minister, some of his closest political allies in the ultra-Orthodox camp expressed their regret that he did not step aside, making room for another right-wing leader who could potentially have built a workable Likud party-led coalition.
Speaking on Sunday only hours before the new government headed by Yamina and Yesh Atid chairmen Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid is expected to be sworn in, United Torah Judaism Knesset faction chair MK Yitzhak Pindrus told Kan public broadcaster that Netanyahu refused ultra-Orthodox requests to allow himself to be replaced “because he knew we were no real threat to him because we could not go with the other side.”
“We’re not Naftali Bennett, after all,” he quipped, referring to incoming Prime Minister Bennett’s promise to voters not to leave Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc.
Asked if UTJ would consider leaving the opposition at some point, Pindrus replied that there was “no chance” that his party would join the new government “under any circumstances.”
His comments appeared to contradict those made earlier on Sunday by fellow UTJ MK Yisrael Eichler, who expressed regret at not calling on Netanyahu to step aside. Addressing a gathering of his Agudath Israel faction on Sunday morning, Eichler expressed the view that they should not have stuck with Netanyahu, asserting that it had been a bad idea “to gamble” the ultra-Orthodox community’s future on the long-time prime minister’s “illusions.”
“We should have understood two months ago that the Netanyahu era is over,” Haredi media reported him saying. “We should have said in a clear voice: 'We appreciate your tremendous work for the people of Israel… but now you have completed twelve years in power and everything good has an end.’”
Over the past decade, Haredi parties have become staunch allies of Netanyahu. In return, they have enjoyed a continuing monopoly over several issues of domestic policy related to religion and state, as well as an exemption for ultra-Orthodox men from Israel’s mandatory military draft.
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Past governments that have attempted to abolish Haredi privileges have seen those reforms erased after only a few years.
In the 2013 election, Yesh Atid had the second-most votes and formed a coalition with Netanyahu. The party managed to push through significant cuts to Haredi entitlements and pass a law requiring Haredi men to participate in the military draft. But those changes were reversed after the subsequent election, which saw Haredi parties rejoin the governing coalition.
However, the formation of a government including both Yesh Atid and the vocally anti-Haredi Avigdor Liberman, who is slated to become finance minister, could have a deleterious impact on the cash flow of ultra-Orthodox institutions dependent on government support, creating an incentive for Shas and UTJ to leave the pro-Netanyahu camp.
Some ultra-Orthodox lawmakers who spoke anonymously with Haredi news website Behadrei Haredim last month indicated that going into the opposition may to their electoral benefit even it hurts their supporters.
“Maybe we will sit in the opposition without budgets and without the possibility of helping, but at last the disgruntled ultra-Orthodox public will understand how much the ultra-Orthodox lawmakers work for them,” one lawmaker told the site.
JTA contributed to this report.