UTJ Joins Yesha Council, Seeks Expansion of Haredi Settlement

Olmert approves construction of 48 new apartments in West Bank town Ariel for evacuated Gaza settlers.

The ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party joined hands for the first time Sunday with the Yesha Council of settlements, to promote a cause that both hold dear: expanding the population of the Haredi settlement of Beitar Ilit, located between Jerusalem and Gush Etzion.

"We all have the same feelings about the Land of Israel," declared MK Avraham Ravitz (UTJ) at a special faction meeting in the settlement, to which leaders of the Yesha Council were invited. "We need pressure, pressure, pressure."

Referring to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's pledge to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to freeze construction in the settlements, Ravitz added: "Olmert must tell his rabbi, Condoleezza, 'I can't do it.'"

One goal of the meeting was to pressure Shas, another ultra-Orthodox party, to quit the government over its decision to stop marketing 800 apartments in Beitar Ilit. The town, which currently has some 31,000 residents, is one of the most sought-after locations for young Haredi couples in the Jerusalem area.

"We must work together with anybody who is pressuring the government to revoke this edict [the marketing freeze]," declared another UTJ MK, Meir Porush. "The UTJ faction came to Beitar today in part to create pressure on other members of the coalition."

On Monday, Shas MKs will also tour Beitar Ilit - where they will be greeted with posters declaring: "Shas is freezing the city." UTJ members pledged yesterday that should Shas quit over the marketing freeze, they would not replace it in the government.

MK Yaakov Litzman (UTJ) said he had arranged Sunday's meeting as part of a larger pressure campaign against the freeze that would also include no-confidence motions. He said he was "anxiously waiting" to see how Shas will respond to this week's motion, because if it threatens to vote no-confidence unless the freeze is lifted, then it will be - instantly. "I guarantee it. Five minutes, by the clock," he said.

Some of the MKs were careful to avoid larger questions about the future of the territories, focusing instead on the Haredi community's severe housing shortage. Moshe Gafni, for instance, said he was uncomfortable with the political statements made by some of his colleagues, because "the issue isn't political, it's social."

Regarding that aspect, however, he was no less adamant than the others. "The faction should meet with the prime minister and tell him that we will wage world war over this," he said. "The community is being strangled. It's heading for an explosion."

But even had there been no political statements, Monday's meeting would probably have come as a shock to Rabbi Eliezer Shach, who led the Lithuanian wing of the Haredi community, which UTJ represents, until his death in 2001. Though Shach hated the Israeli left, he was also a sworn opponent of the settlements - due in part to fear of "provoking the world" - and they were established over his objections. Today, however, Haredi settlements are the leading source of growth for the Jewish population of the territories.