By Larry Gordon
Over the next few weeks, the news coming out of Israel about the composition of faces and policies of the new ruling coalition government will have us being jerked and juddered in an assortment of directions.
And these are the questions: Will the religious parties like Shas and United Torah Judaism be included or excluded from the governing coalition? Will Nafatali Bennett’s HaBayit HaYehudi party–representing the interests of the religious Zionist community–be included? Can all the kippah wearers in all three of these parties unite in some fashion and present Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a united religious front?
What about Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid Party and their shocking accrual of 19 Knesset seats that includes two Orthodox rabbis? Lapid’s political platform was focused on balancing the fashion in which Israel’s citizens contribute to the continuing development of Israeli society. To Lapid, this primarily means redefining the relationship between the yeshiva-oriented communities, the chareidim, and their obligations to serve the country in the IDF or through alternate forms of national service.
The guessing game goes on daily and may go on for weeks. The 5TJT, however, has connected with a personality who is not a member of the Knesset but has intimate knowledge of the ongoing process. This person is involved in the coalition talks and negotiations but cannot be identified because he or she is not authorized at this point to talk about the intense negotiations that are taking place daily.
So can the religious parties work together or not? If yes, how? If not, what are the differences? There are no simple answers to those questions. What needs to be pointed out, however, is that certain personal differences between elected officials have to be dealt with before even those fundamental questions can be addressed.
Firstly, there are sore personal feelings between Sara and Benjamin Netanyahu and HaBayit’s Naftali Bennett. Mr. Bennett once served as Netanyahu’s chief of staff and is purported to have had a run-in and exchange of words with Mrs. Netanyahu at one point. According to our source, Bennett once said to Sara, “How about getting out of my face and letting me do my work.” Mrs. Netanyahu was incensed at being spoken to that way and it is reportedly she who is adamantly opposed to Bennett’s party being invited to join a Likud- and Netanyahu-led coalition.
On another political front, while Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid was once adamant about not wanting to serve in a government coalition with Shas, he has now softened his position on that issue. Lapid continues at present to insist that if Shas does sign on to the coalition, party co-leader Arye Deri would not be awarded a ministerial portfolio. Shas is insisting that both Deri and Eli Yishai receive ministry portfolios if they join the coalition.
Lapid objects to Deri serving as a minister because he was convicted of a crime (bribery) and served time in jail. But that may not be the real issue. The point of contention between Yesh Atid, Shas, and UTJ is the dispute that needs to be negotiated over about exemptions from national service for yeshiva students or revamping the system where everyone becomes eligible to serve in some capacity.
Having garnered 19 Knesset seats and being the leader of Israel’s second-largest political party, Lapid is in the best position to make demands and set conditions for forming a coalition. It has been reported that Lapid is still deciding whether he wants to be foreign minister or finance minister in the next government. Certainly it would probably serve the Lapid agenda if he were appointed as head of the powerful finance ministry as he has an extensive agenda that he would like to see implemented on the matter of social issues in Israeli society.
On the other hand, it might be best for the country if Lapid was foreign minister and was able to use some of his style and panache to deflect some of the constant criticism and sometimes cold shoulder that is directed at Israel from the Obama administration. After all, Lapid sees many social issues the same way many Democrats do, though he is nowhere near the peace activist or pushover that the U.S. may have been hoping for in Tzipi Livni or Shelly Yachimovich.
On the matter of the acrimony that seems to still exist between Mr. Bennett and the Netanyahus, it just may be that Bibi will be able to placate his wife’s hostility toward Bennett by inviting HaBayit to serve in the coalition after a majority has already been secured. That majority ruling coalition can be secured by combining Likud (31), Yesh Atid (19), Shas (11), and Kadima (2). That’s 63 seats in total. By adding HaBayit’s 12 seats and possibly UTJ at some point, that’s 82 seats–a very firm and strong coalition.
And then there is the matter of who will be the next chief rabbi of the State of Israel. On the Ashkenazic side of the equation, the Religious Zionist camp would like to see the position change and have one of their many qualified rabbis serve in the position. The leading candidate from this camp is Rabbi Dovid Stav.
Rabbi Stav, a graduate of Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav, is the rabbi of the town of Shoham and is a cofounder and the chairman of the Tzohar rabbinical organization. In 1998, Rabbi Stav cofounded the hesder yeshiva in Petach Tikva with Rabbis Cherlow and Piron, who is #2 in Yesh Atid. Rabbi Stav teaches in Metivta, a women’s seminary in Bar Ilan University. He is the spokesman for Rashei Yeshivot Hesder across Israel.
Rabbi Stav holds a semichah for dayanut (judgment in rabbinical court). Rabbi Stav has taught at Yeshivat Hesder of Or Etzion, been the rabbi at Maale, an Orthodox school for the study of film in Jerusalem, and the rabbi of the B’nei Darom settlement, as well as for a community in Belgium where, on shlichut, Rabbi Stav also served as the rosh yeshiva.
While certainly intellectually well-equipped to serve as Chief Ashkenazic Rabbi, his orientation is not along the lines of others who have held that position, like Rabbi Shlomo Goren, Rabbi Avraham Shapira, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, or the current Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Yona Metzger.
The Sephardic political party, Shas, has its own ideas about who the next Sephardic Chief Rabbi should be. For the chareidim, represented by United Torah Judaism in the Knesset, the fear of a nationalist rabbi winning the 150-person panel vote for the position is that the Religious Zionist rabbi will be more liberal in his approach to marrying couples in which one of the individuals may have a less than optimal circumstance surrounding the assertion that they are in fact a halachic Jew.
Additionally there is intense pressure in Israel to allow Conservative and Reform rabbis to marry couples, which the rightists and traditionalists in Israel are dead set against.
And then there is the all-important matter of whether all the kippah/yarmulke wearers in the Knesset can work together or not. The other day UTJ’s Meir Porush commented that they all daven Minchah together in the Knesset so he doesn’t see why they cannot have a meeting of the minds on other issues as well.
From this vantage point, it would seem that UTJ will have to demonstrate some flexibility on some issues if they want to join the next government. The fact is that it does not seem that Netanyahu really needs them. On the other hand, what will they do in the opposition with Labor, Livni, Meretz, and the Arab parties? They really don’t belong there either.
Over the next couple of weeks, Israel’s elected leaders will have to make some tough compromises and choices. The issue of creating a system where yeshiva students have to do mandatory army or national service of some form is not a black-and-white one, so to speak. Rabbi Zalman Melamed, a Religious Zionist rabbi whose followers believe that army service is a mitzvah, said this week that this concept of equality can in and of itself becomes a drag and burden on Israeli society. His suggestion was to allow young men to choose whether they wanted to remain in yeshiva, do national service, or go out to work. He said that those who choose to work without doing national service would be taxed at higher levels than those who serve first.
As for Mr. Lapid and the Yesh Atid view on the matter, our source involved in the coalition negotiations says it is inaccurate to simply state that the Lapid view is that there has to be equal army service for all. Intertwined in the details of his position is that 400 yeshiva students at every post-high-school yeshiva level will be able to take tests to determine whether he should be able to continue full-time study in yeshiva. In addition, there is a compromise formula set forth by former general and Netanyahu inner cabinet member Moshe Yaalon that calls for the same type of testing, but without the 400-student quota.
As for advocating for the yeshiva community in the coalition talks, two rabbis headed for the Knesset seem committed to ensuring that all are treated fairly in any ultimate agreement. Rabbi Dov Piron is #2 behind Lapid, and Rabbi Dov Lipman of Bet Shemesh–an American by birth, born and raised in Silver Spring, Maryland–is #19.
At some point over the next few weeks, a new governing coalition will be patched together. The varying elements and the process itself may look and feel somewhat sloppy but in fact will reflect the gradual changes and rearranged priorities of Israeli society overall. All this horse trading taking place could indeed be healthy and may even be the best thing that has happened to the Jewish state in a very long time. v
Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.