Haredi Army Enlistment May Cost Netanyahu Precious Political Capital

One of the main outcomes of last summer's protest will likely be an end to draft exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox. Meanwhile, army reservists are also pressing their case for more favorable affordable-housing criteria.

Army reservists may have been forced to dismantle their "suckers' compound" due to stormy weather this week, but they did succeed to vent their rage over the draft exemptions given to the ultra-Orthodox in the Knesset. On Monday they expressed their outrage there to government ministers and party leaders alike, and subsequently intensive discussions were held about changing criteria for housing assistance in reservists' favor, and about the Tal Law, which for the past decade has sanctioned Haredi draft evasion.

It appears now that the main result of last summer's protests will be that the ultra-Orthodox will start being drafted to army service or at least required to do national service. The public supports this. Most political parties support this. Two weeks ago, Benjamin Netanyahu was still talking about extending the Tal Law by another five years, but now he lacks a majority to do that for even 15 minutes.

Haredi army - Alex Levac
Alex Levac

At a Likud discussion of the law on Monday, while standing next to Amnon Dafni, Idan Miller and Boaz Nol, the leaders of the so-called suckers compound, Netanyahu promised that they would be "pleased" when the government passes its recommendations on to the Knesset. When asked what he meant, he repeated: "You'll be pleased."

At an earlier press conference, Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman had stated softly, "The Tal Law will not be extended." The foreign minister is particularly intimidating when he speaks softly. "All coalition members will act on this issue as they see fit," he said. "I am in favor of Judaism devoid of politics."

Reinforcing this message, Yisrael Beiteinu Minister Stas Misezhnikov stated that should Netanyahu not honor his agreement with the party - i.e., to make employment and army service significant criteria for receiving affordable housing - "the party will feel free to continue its civil agenda involving religion and state, and this will include legislation about Israel Defense Forces conversions, civil unions and more."

Most opposition parties and some coalition parties support Lieberman's position on issues involving religion and state; for instance, a number of Likud members would find it difficult to vote against certain Lieberman proposals. This is a surefire recipe for a political melee, one that will turn the Knesset's summer session into something between a love fest and a mud fight.

Shas and United Torah Judaism cannot threaten to call for early elections, since elections are approaching in any case. Meanwhile, one well-connected Haredi minister said this week that those two parties are unlikely to join the next government, even if Netanyahu forms it.

"The atmosphere toward us is hostile," the minister stated. "Netanyahu will do what [Ariel] Sharon did in 2003, and leave us on the outside. Instead he'll ally with Kadima, Yair Lapid or even the Labor Party. But he won't invite us to join the government - he's sick of us."

On Tuesday night, after Netanyahu won 77 percent of Likud primary votes, besting his sole rival Moshe Feiglin, the prime minister delivered a speech to his supporters. "There's still time [before national elections]," he said.

That is true, but Netanyahu's comments this week indicate that he has perhaps reconciled himself to early elections, but has yet to decide when they should take place. Last week he met with United Torah Judaism MKs Yaakov Litzman and Moshe Gafni and told them: "As far as I'm concerned, as late as possible." The Haredi politicians would like to believe he really means that.

Steinitz's shock

The state comptroller found that Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz and Interior Minister Eli Yishai bear personal responsibility for the Carmel fire tragedy - according to blaring headlines in Haaretz and Yedioth Ahronoth on Sunday.

Beyond the moral significance of this finding, it has humiliating political implications. Steinitz is likely to be remembered as the first finance minister in Israel, perhaps in the world, to be forced out of his job over a calamity beyond his office's jurisdiction. "This hit me as a surprise, like a bolt of lightning, out of the blue," Steinitz told his associates.

In recent days, he has held tempestuous, emotional discussions with dozens of persons - jurists, ministers, journalists and others. The troubling fact that the sensational news reached the media before the censured ministers had a chance to review the draft report (which will be relayed to them next week ) exacerbates criticism of the State Comptroller's Office's conduct.

Before the December 2010 forest fire, which killed 44 people, the State Comptroller's Office drafted a report about the country's fire-prevention services. The report mentioned Netanyahu, Yishai and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, but not Steinitz. For seven months following the disaster, Yishai, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, the police, Israel Prison Service people and firefighters were questioned.

Last spring, Maariv reported that Yishai and Steinitz were apparently the main parties responsible for the calamity. Steinitz was stunned. He called a meeting with his top ministry officials to find out who had spoken with the State Comptroller's Office; none admitted to doing so. Steinitz asked the ministry's legal counsel to write the State Comptroller's Office a protest letter. The counsel balked. The next day that office asked for an urgent meeting with Steinitz. During the meeting, Steinitz learned that Yishai had told Lindenstrauss that the finance minister had blocked funds for fire prevention, despite government decisions to the contrary.

"I didn't violate any government decision, and there was no such decision," Steinitz told his associates this week. "Between annual budgets, I cannot allocate money without government authorization. There was no decision to allocate money for fire prevention ... In the summer of 2010, the prime minister decided to allocate NIS 100 million for fire prevention, NIS 40 million from the Finance Ministry and NIS 60 million from the Interior Ministry. I did my part. The Interior Ministry had the money well before the fire broke out. They didn't use it to purchase any firefighting equipment," he noted.

"I am simply the treasurer. When there is a decision, I allocate money," Steinitz likes to say.

On Sunday, in response to newspaper headlines calling for the ministers' ouster, one Likud minister (not Steinitz ) called the State Comptroller's Office to clarify the situation. The minister was told that the comptroller cannot depose ministers or call for their removal; all he can do is pass on reports to the attorney general. The minister was told that Steinitz and Yishai had been found to have "special" responsibility. The term "personal" responsibility - which implies ousting - was not used.

On Saturday night, Steinitz and Netanyahu attended a political meeting in Petah Tikvah. During the event, the finance minister began receiving reports about the next day's headlines. He asked Netanyahu for a lift back home to Mevasseret Zion, and the two got into the prime minister's car. When they reached the outskirts of Mevasseret, they continued onward to the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem. They headed to Netanyahu's office, where they continued discussing matters. Steinitz apparently left feeling confident.

"Bibi is on my side - after all, he used to be finance minister," Steinitz told his associates. "He grasps the absurdity of this situation."

Another Sharon for Kadima

Omri Sharon, like his brother Gilad, regularly talks to his comatose father. He tells Ariel about events at the farm and in Israel. He intends to tell his father that he is backing Tzipi Livni in the upcoming Kadima primaries.

"I decided to join forces with Tzipi because the state needs a political alternative," he says. "Kadima is the only real alternative. If it lacks Knesset seats, it won't pose an alternative. If Mofaz leads the party, it won't be an alternative. Its only chance of really being an alternative is with Tzipi. I have a good life. I like walking around the farm during the winter and working with the livestock. But I'll give up everything over the next few months because I care about the state."

Omri Sharon is one of Kadima's founders, and he knows all about its darkest recesses. He knows all the characters in this so-called alternative party, and most Kadima politicians like him. He knows how to organize for a political primary. On the other hand, Sharon has a criminal record, including offenses committed when he ran his father's election campaign staff. And he has strong ties to two prominent Livni supporters, Tzachi Hanegbi and Haim Ramon, both of whom have criminal records.

Livni, who built up her career by distancing herself from then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert when he was merely a criminal suspect, has embraced Sharon. Making a cool cost-benefit calculation, she realized that courting him is worth the trouble. If she were not facing a tough electoral challenge from Mofaz, she probably would have declined Sharon's offer.

Livni's associates called Sharon a "game changer." The moment he entered the picture this week, "everything changed," they claim. "We're receiving phone calls from party members who were set to join Mofaz's camp, but have now decided to stay with us. People know Omri will have a huge impact."

Whether this is true will be evident by March 28. In the meanwhile, everyone connected to Sharon, including Reuven Adler, Yisrael Maimon and (of course ) his own relatives, supports Livni. They are bitterly critical of developments within Kadima, but when it comes to a choice between Livni and Mofaz - a protege of Ariel Sharon no less - they prefer her. Perhaps this is because she joined Kadima immediately when Ariel Sharon split from Likud, whereas Mofaz was a latecomer.

Rewriting history

The uprising in Cairo's Tahrir Square began January 25, 2011. That day, the new head of IDF Intelligence, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, appeared before the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. "There is no reason to fear for the Egyptian government's fate," he said. "The regime there is strong. We don't believe that the Muslim Brotherhood is capable of supplanting the regime. They can't."

Next Saturday, February 11, will mark the first anniversary of Hosni Mubarak's ouster. Since then, the Muslim Brotherhood won a majority in the country's parliament. One veteran Knesset committee member wondered whether the NIS 1 billion allocated to IDF intelligence each year are really worth it.

According to Hebrew Wikipedia's entry for "Aviv Kochavi": "In his first security briefing (January 25, 2011 ) to the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Kochavi noted, 'There is concern for the stability of Mubarak's regime,' and this proved true a few days later, when the uprising broke out."

But the archives tell a different story. I asked some Knesset members, and they, too recalled that Kochavi didn't exactly say what the Wikipedia entry alleges.