Netanyahu Chose to Depend on the ultra-Orthodox Parties

Alexander Yakobson
Alexander Yakobson
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Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to Shas MK Aryeh Deri during a Knesset session in 2015.
Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to Shas MK Aryeh Deri during a Knesset session in 2015.Credit: Ronen Zvulun / Reuters
Alexander Yakobson
Alexander Yakobson

Is there a connection between the degree of control the ultra-Orthodox parties have over the Israeli political system and Benjamin Netanyahu’s tenure as prime minister? Naturally, in the multiparty system in this country in which the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim, vote collectively in a much more cohesive and effective way than other groups – this large community will always wield a lot of influence. However, in recent years, their political power has been boosted even further by the extreme political and personal dependence on them that Netanyahu has developed.

For Netanyahu, the Haredim are the only ones – perhaps even more than some Likud figures – whom he can rely upon completely in his hope of attaining what apparently interests him above all: forging a parliamentary majority for legislation that would halt his trial on corruption charges. The dependency on them ensures the Haredim unprecedented political power. 

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A friend and colleague responded to an article I wrote last month (in the Haaretz Hebrew edition), disputing the connection I drew between replacing Netanyahu and the chance of curbing (not nullifying) the power of the Haredim. He wrote that the premier’s dependence on that community is the fault of his rivals who have made the “anyone but Bibi” slogan a sacred principle. They should stop shunning him and agree to sit in a coalition with him, rather than push him in to the arms of the Haredim, my friend argued. 

However, the experiment of forsaking the “anyone but Bibi” principle was already conducted – when Kahol Lavan’s Benny Gantz entered a Netanyahu-led government. Were Netanyahu honestly prepared to uphold the agreement between them that was supposed to ensure a broad and stable government for four years, it would have weakened the Haredim’s bargaining position – or, rather, it would have transformed their position of dictating terms to one of bargaining. Such willingness would not have obliged the prime minister to disavow the Haredim and form a coalition without them: Gantz made no such demand. Gantz was a very convenient partner who entered the partnership from a position of weakness after the partial breakup of his party, and was chained to the government by the vain hope that the premiership rotation would happen.  

However, if the option of upholding the rotation agreement ever crossed Netanyahu’s mind, he clearly rejected it – and strongly. By refusing to pass the state budget, which automatically caused the Knesset to disband, he hoped to guarantee himself a way out of the agreement – not just to avoid the rotation, but also to try to achieve, by means of an early election, a majority for legislation that would abort his trial – a retroactive “French law.”

Of course, the “Frenchness” of this proposed law is fake, since in France the law prohibits a sitting president of the republic from being forced to stand trial: Nowhere in the world, however, does the prime minister in a parliamentary regime enjoy such an arrangement. But Netanyahu is justifiably relying on the Haredim not to trouble themselves with such nuances. And in the state of constantly looming elections that Netanyahu has imposed upon the system, that community’s power is soaring. 

Netanyahu’s dependence on the Haredim was not forced upon him: He created it of his own bad and free will, locked the door and threw away the key.   

This situation also has political roots that precede Netanyahu’s legal troubles, dating back to 2015, to the twilight of the center-right governing coalition he led, which included Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid, without the Haredi parties. Those were the pre-“anyone but Bibi” days, a time before “disqualification on personal grounds,” before the question of a prime minister under indictment had arisen.

Netanyahu broke up that government, sparked an early election and forged a narrow right-wing-Haredi coalition. 

In 2016, Netanyahu held secret negotiations with Isaac Herzog about his Labor Party joining the coalition government but at the last moment refused to sign the emerging agreement. Herzog, who was ready to enter the government even at the price of splitting Labor, was seriously damaged by this episode, and the last chance for a broad government was lost. This was Netanyahu’s strategic political choice: He apparently decided that the rightist camp, of which the Haredi parties are effectively an inseparable part, had become strong enough to run the country alone. 

Ever since then, his rule has been powered by the total loyalty of his right-wing-Haredi base. Moreover, in recent years, due to his personal legal problems, the special importance of the Haredi component of this base has been hugely enhanced.

This was Netanyahu’s strategic choice: He apparently decided that the rightist camp, to which the Haredi parties belong, were strong enough to run the country alone.