A New Coalition for Israel: It’s Not Just About Us

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Over fifty years ago, I was playing checkers with my father, a”h, on a Sunday morning. The next oldest brother in our family line-up, not yet five years old, sat on my father’s lap. Suddenly, he could not contain himself and shouted out, “Look, Daddy, look,” before proceeding to make a quintuple jump. I don’t recall ever playing checkers again.

I was put in mind of that quintuple jump last week, on Tuesday morning, when Israel awakened to learn that the elections in September voted on by the Knesset just the day before would not be taking place. Instead the largest peacetime coalition in Israel’s history had been assembled in the small hours of the morning. Kadima head Shaul Mofaz, the official leader of the opposition when we went to bed, had joined the governing coalition, brining his 29 Kadima MKs together with him. The day before Mofaz had been lambasting Netanyahu as a “liar” from the podium of the Knesset. Now he had accepted the position of Netanyahu’s deputy prime minister.

And most surprising, not one of the country’s political analysts – of which Israel has more per capita than any other country – had seen this coming. Little less surprising, in a country in which no government secret remains such for long, no hint of what was about to happen were leaked to the press.

In retrospect, Netanyahu’s strategy is so blindingly obvious that it is hard to understand how no one predicted it. His sudden decision to advance the next elections by a year was but the first-prong of a stratagem to force Mofaz and his Kadima Party into the government. Opinion polls showed Kadima dropping from its current status as the largest party in the Knesset to between six and eight seats, if elections were held today. Given that reality, nearly every member of Kadima had a strong interest in avoiding new elections and prolonging their political careers. And the choice facing party leader Shaul Mofaz was a no-brainer: Serve as deputy prime minister for the next 18 months or find himself rendered a political non-entity in the upcoming elections.

In one swift move, Netanyahu successfully neutered all of his major political rivals – both current and prospective. Yair Lapid, who just formed a party to pick up the former supporters of his late father’s Shinui Party, will spend the next 18 months twiddling his thumbs. He cannot return to his choice seat on Channel Two News nor can he begin mounting a political campaign. Similarly, Aryeh Deri, who had hoped to announce a new party, expected to cut heavily into Shas’s support, has been effectively sidelined. Labor, which polls showed emerging as the second largest party from new elections, will remain with its measly number of MKs until the next elections.

Netanyahu not only neutralized a host of potential rivals, he created a coalition strong enough to pass legislation designed to take the wind out of the sails of the opposition parties. In the economic sphere, for instance, he can address real problems in the Israeli economy – e.g. oligarchic control of numerous industries, most critically banking; the exhorbitant price of government lands, which results in sky high apartment prices – while avoiding the loonier economic prescriptions of last summer’s social protests (which are revving up again with the end of the university year) that would turn Israel from the path of economic prosperity towards the direction of Europe’s failing social democracies.

POLITICALLY, THE NEW COALITION was definitely a quintuple jump. But it would be a mistake to view Netanyahu’s moves as having been dictated exclusively by political considerations. National unity governments in Israel typically come into existence on the eve of major wars, as just before the 1967 Six Day War. While there is no immediate threat of war, Israel faces two major dangers that make the establishment of the broadest possible government an important desideratum. The most discussed of those threats is that of a nuclear Iran. The second is the renewed threat from Egypt on Israel’s southern border, after more than thirty years of cold peace. Increasingly bellicose voices are being heard today in Egypt, which possesses the Arab world’s largest and best armed (with billions of annual American aid) army.

The new coalition allows Netanyahu to keep Defense Minister Ehud Barak at his side as he wrestles with the fateful decision of whether and when to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. Barak was Netanyahu’s commander in the elite Sayeret unit, and whatever their past political rivalry, there is no question that the two men place great stock in one another’s abilities. Netanyahu very much wants Barak to remain as Defense Minister – a position he would have little chance of retaining after new elections, as he has lost his entire political base.

The new coalition, which at this writing houses over three-quarters of the MKs, allows Netanyahu to present a united front not only versus the Iranian enemy, but also towards her American ally. Whatever decision is made with respect to Iran will demonstrably be the decision of the Israeli people and not just her prime minister and defense minister. In addition, the size of the coalition means that Netanyahu can focus his attention on the strategic dilemmas facing Israel, without the ever present distraction of coalition politics. As long as he keeps Kadima in the coalition, he does not need any of the smaller parties that had hitherto made up his governing coalition and none can threaten him with their departure.

I HAVE WRITTEN AT GREAT LENGTH, without discussing the aspect of the coalition agreement of greatest moment to readers of Yated Ne’eman: What does this mean for the chareidi community? That decision was deliberate. While the coalition agreement has enormous implications for the chareidi community in Eretz Yisrael, it would be a mistake to view it as if it were only or even primarily about the chareidi community.

Yet it would be no less of a mistake to downplay the significance of the agreement for the chareidi community. The two most explicit planks in the agreement between Netanyahu and Mofaz were for speedy reform of the electoral system – for the purpose of decreasing the influence of the smaller parties, including the chareidi parties – and for legislation to “equalize” the burdens of national service, meaning the draft of yeshiva students into the IDF or alternate frameworks for national service, at worst, or, more likely, reduced funding for institutions whose students do not serve.

All those who claimed after the Supreme Court struck down the Tal Law, which had largely protected the status of yeshiva bochurim, that nothing would come of it, because there will never be a government coalition that does not depend on the chareidi parties for survival, stand conclusively refuted. And we see how prescient was Rav Aharon Leib Steinman’s call upon the chareidi community, even before the announcement of the expanded coalition, to cast aside its complacency and multiply its tefillos.

The new coalition agreement catapulted the chareidi community into an entirely new relationship with the broader Israeli society. In the past, chareidi political representatives were primarily engaged in political horse-trading. Their task was to safeguard the status quo on the draft deferment for those in full-time learning and to try to gain as much possible funding for communal educational institutions. Both tasks primarily depended on testing to what extent chareidi coalition support could be leveraged.

The arts of persuasion – showing an understanding of the other side’s point of view, searching for win-win solutions – had little to do with it. Primarily this was a matter of power politics. But chareidi MKs have now been stripped of their most powerful bargaining chip – the threat of leaving the coalition. Prime Minister Netanyahu would like to keep them in the coalition, but he has no great need to do so, and would likely gain an immediate boost in popularity if he let the chareidi parties walk. (Chareidi-baiting has always been a hit with large segments of the Israeli public.)

What this means, inter alia, is that our politicians and political leaders will have to develop skills of persuasion that have largely atrophied over the years. We will now have to speak to the broader Israeli population and their political leaders and make the case that the interests of the Torah community are congruent with interests of Klal Yisrael and the state of Israel. Power politics will no longer suffice.

May Hashem give our political leaders the wisdom to fashion compelling arguments that enter into the hearts of our secular brethren.

This article also appears in this week’s Yated Ne’eman.

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15 Responses

  1. Baruch Gitlin says:

    “What is the goal? If the goal is that Haredi men share in the burden of the defense of the state, then let them draft them into Nahal Haredi, Shachar, etc. I cannnot argue with that, assuming that the IDF keeps its promises.”

    I completely agree. I see no benefit to anyone of trying to place haredi soldiers in mixed units. I think the Nachal Haredi is a good idea, and should be encouraged. I think the overwhelming majority of the public would be thrilled to see the majority of haredi young men serve in the Nachal Haredi or similar units, and would also be willing to see a complete exemption for some to study Torah full time – as long as the exemption was limited, and reasonable.

    “I don’t think unmarried Jewish women at age 18-19 should not be compelled to serve, either in the army or any other type of service, unless the parents can…”

    I agree with this too, and as you probably know, religious women are exempt from army service and have been since the huge and well-known battle led by the Chazon Ish in the early 50’s. In the current debate, I have not heard any serious commentator or politician expressing the wish to revisit this issue.

    As to the point about the parents, I should have mentioned that for many parents, and certainly for national-religious parents, they also worry about the spriritual and social aspects of the army. I used to think as you did that this is exclusively a haredi issue, until I joined the dati leumi world and learned – I really should have known better – that many or most dati leumi parents have the same fears as haredi parents. The dati leumi world deals with this by trying to strenghen their children, spiritually, through pre-army programs geared towards equipping the young men with the tools to deal with and withstand the challenge of army service, as well as the hesder program.

  2. YM says:

    Baruch, I am sure most Israeli parents dislike the idea that their kids could be killed, by accident or in a conflict, but the IDF that their kids are going into represents THEIR values. This dispute is at least partially about the values of the State. Who decided that men and women should be mixed together the way they are? Is there a place in the State of Israel for Haredim to exist as Haredim?

    Another problem – can the IDF be trusted to keep its promises. We know that Rabbi Ra’avad stepped down because the IDF didn’t keep its promises regarding their units for Haredi personnel.

    What is the goal? If the goal is that Haredi men share in the burden of the defense of the state, then let them draft them into Nahal Haredi, Shachar, etc. I cannnot argue with that, assuming that the IDF keeps its promises. An even better solution would be to transform the IDF so that there is no conflict between “religious integrity” (in R. Ra’avad’s words) and IDF service. Everything I have read tells me that they don’t have the money to do this, and don’t really want to do this.

    I don’t think unmarried Jewish women at age 18-19 should not be compelled to serve, either in the army or any other type of service, unless the parents can

    I wouldn’t expect the Haredi parties to negotiate this – they don’t think it should be happening to begin with, but the terms under which this would be acceptable to the Haredi community are known.

  3. Baruch Gitlin says:

    To YM, a few questions: Do you think most Israeli parents like sending their children into the army? Do you think most 18-22 year olds want to put their life on hold for 3 years? Do you think that in the Second Lebanon war, or the recent Gaza war, the soldiers wanted to be out there fighting, being shot at, being exposed to all types of risks, and occasionally being under the command of superiors they might not have liked or trusted with their lives?

    And, do you have any evidence to back up your claim that Israel could get by with a volunteer army? As long as we are occuping Judea and Samaria (aka the West Bank), there is a steady demand for soldiers to man numerous barricades, patrol numerous roads, and guard numerous settlements. There is also a situation in Egypt that is already requiring increased manpower on the Sinai border, and may very well require much more in the near future. I know that Moshe Feiglin has called for a volunteer army, but it seems to me that most people in this camp are haredim who want this issue to go away. I haven’t heard anyone from the army, or anyone else in power, express this opinion, and I don’t think it is correct.

    Finally, about the conditions of army service. I personally know several young men (all non-haredi, by the way) who have recently been inducted into the Nachal Haredi, so I don’t know the basis for saying it cannot accomodate more haredim. And if the conditions are a problem, that’s something it might be possible to negotiate. Yet, instead of negotiating, the haredi knesset factions are boycotting the committee that was set up to deal with this issue. Why is that, if the conditions of service is what is preventing the majority of haredi young men from serving in the army?

  4. YM says:

    What is the goal, and what is the problem with the Haredim?

    The men don’t work, but they are not allowed to work, becuase they don’t serve in the Army or do national service.

    They don’t serve in the Army because Haredim are not willing to have their 18 or 19 year old children serving in units where males and females are mixed together (among other reasons).

    So in order to deal with the concern about mixed units, the IDF has created the Nahal Haredi, but cannot afford to expand it to handle all of the Haredim who would have to serve is their service was universal.

    Also, in the Haredi world, kids don’t routinely move out of the family home at age 18 or 19 for no reason- they stay until they get married.

    What is the goal? To get Haredim to work? To get them to serve? Or to get them to serve specifically in a way that is unacceptable to them?

    As a parent of little girls who are going to be separated by gender in school beginning at age 5, I can’t picture my kids, after attending single gender schools thru high school, being required to live in a barracks with guys, sharing the same bathrooms, etc.

    Even the idea of national service I find problematic. I don’t want my kids living outside our home for no reason. I want to choose who is going to be in positions of influence over them. Just like I will choose their schools and seminaries, beezras Hashem.

    In Israel, there is no real emergency requiring everyone’s help. It is known that Israel doesn’t really need the draft anymore and could switch to a volunteer army, except that the state sees the Army as a way to spread a common culture, a culture that the Haredi community doesn’t share.

    I also hope that the Haredi leadership in Israel can make compelling arguments and negotiate something that allows their young people to stay in a tahor (pure) atmosphere.

  5. lacosta says:

    1– in regards the passuk of ‘ha’achechem’, maybe we need to think of it like david hamelech’s army – not everyone with a streimel and bekeshe qualified from a ruchni perspective. we are so used to thinking of the haredi yungerman as the epitome of judaism; but maybe he davka is passul to be in Hashem’s army to defend His people, maybe the dati leumi chayal is takkeh the peak…

    2– saw an interesting letter in response to the Ami editorial slamming the medina. in response to a dan-the-medina-lekaf-zchus letter, someone wrote that there is no inyan of hakaras hatov for the backroom payoffs of political haggling ie if the haredim in Israel since Begin depend on govt aid to them and their mosdos as a lifeline, this is just bakhshish that either Labor or Likud made as payoffs to UTJ and Shas, and therefore no gratitude is needed. these are truly one dimensional parties–if haredim had unlimited funds and the medina would let them sit there as non-citizens and leave them alone, there would be no need for any haredi party… they are the epitome of JFK’s line —> ask what your country can do for me ….

  6. YS says:

    Menachem,

    I’ve reread the piece and I’m still having a hard time finding any suggestion that the Charedi world needs to reevaluate its goals, which is the Mussar that I was looking for. What Mussar is there here? That spite towards the Charedim might not have been the sole impetus behind the expanded coalition? That Charedim should daven extra-hard that their political leaders should have the wisdom to use more refined tactics to perpetuate draft-dodging and economic dependence on everyone else? The former is at best an accurate political analysis, which might not be completely obvious to members of the Charedi world, and the latter is more of the same old story

  7. Netanel Livni says:

    >“Also, it’s extremely important Mussar for the Chaeidi community here”

    It’s actually a possuk. Al tivtechu bi’nedivim, ub’ven adam asher ein lo teshuah.

    I was thinking of a different pasuk:

    הַאַחֵיכֶם, יָבֹאוּ לַמִּלְחָמָה, וְאַתֶּם, תֵּשְׁבוּ פֹה

  8. Baruch Gitlin says:

    Good analysis, and very encouraging to see that this was printed in Yated Neeman. One can only hope this is a harbinger of change.

    I think there are many possible solutions to the yeshiva student draft issue, and reasonable negotiation could lead to a solution that should satisify most parties. For example, why could the yeshiva students not be inducted for basic training during bein hazmanim, maybe a longer period, but a period that would not be overly burdensome to their learning? They could do reserve duty every year during bein hazmanim, and be available to serve in case of emergency. I think something along those lines would be a satisfactory way of “sharing the burden,” to use the currently popular phrase, without more than a small disruption at most of the learning. Good faith negotiations, such as this article encourages, could lead to a solution like this.

  9. Menachem Lipkin says:

    Though there was more in the article, one need not look past the title to see the Mussar… “It’s Not Just About Us”! (And if anyone questions who the “us” is, remember that this was published in the Yated.) It’s not just a change in “tactics” YS, what Rosenblum suggests will require a fundamental change in how this community views itself within the context of the greater society.

  10. Tal Benschar says:

    “Also, it’s extremely important Mussar for the Chaeidi community here”

    It’s actually a possuk. Al tivtechu bi’nedivim, ub’ven adam asher ein lo teshuah.

  11. YS says:

    I’m not sure how this can be called Mussar for the Charedi community. Rabbi Rosenblum made no attempt to be critical of the moral aspect of Charedi avoidance of army duty and participation in the Israeli work-force. He simply stated, as he did in his column for the Jerusalem Post Magazine last week, that tactics will need to be changed.

  12. Bob Miller says:

    Any party that wants to be part of the government should have a plausible, detailed position on all key political issues, not only the few issues that most impact its own constituency. A party should show it would be ready and able to step in to form the government and rule wisely. To an outsider, the idea that Party A’s sole job is to advance Group A’s own special interests at all costs and with no other concerns seems to undermine the whole system. This applies to both large and small parties.

  13. Dovid says:

    Outstanding.

    I identify as dati leumi, and for several years I subscribed and read Hamodia and Yated. I enjoyed and admired the Torah-focused perspective, but I was troubled by the fact that so much of the goings-on in the general Israeli society was seen as a deliberate attack against the charedim. Yasher koiach to Rabbi Rosenblum for showing that political machinations in Israel had broad contexts, and not everything is about the charedim.

  14. Menachem Lipkin says:

    Excellent Analysis. And while I’m not convinced that it was completely a calculated move by Netanyahu, I certainly think it was possible. And if true, only adds to his political brilliance.

    Also, it’s extremely important Mussar for the Chaeidi community here, especially given the forum in which it was written.

    Kol Hakavod.

  15. lacosta says:

    it is interesting to contrast and compare two ‘burdensome’ minorities in Israel [ both representing about 5% of the knesset seats]– the settlers and the haredim. both groups are seen to be outside the mainstream, and both groups can not exist without the massive infusion of capital from the majority of the State who are isolated from them. the settlers have already been shown they are at the mercy of the State– they were expelled from Gaza. the haredim , who put their economic faith in the State after the Begin victory, differ in the following respect. they have not yet shown the majority that they are OF the State– in fact , they repeatedly [via daas tora] re-emphasize that they do not share in the Sacraments of the secular State– the army , the zionist holidays etc. when some advocated a Tal like compromise, the most extreme elements in haredi society saw to it that this wouldnt happen. while conceivably the Settler enterprise could be eliminated , it would have to be part of a capitulation to the arabs. most israelis would see this as a security issue and would think twice. eliminating the haredi segment of the budget would not shed any hiloni tears . the haredi community would either have to ‘get with the program’ , which realistically can’t happen; or prove to the majority that the State can’t function without them, also an impossibility.
    instead , they can depend on the inherent infighting of the majority parties, which , after the Iran war , will probably separate to their usual petty grievances; and then the haredim can breathe a temporary sigh of relief….