April 19, 2019

Election Tales of the Chasidim

With the possibility of war in Gaza still in the rearview mirror — avoided for now, but not yet resolved — the Israeli never-a-dull-moment truck moves to its next destination: early elections. It is mid August, and all we want is a little respite. No, say our political leaders. You still have to worry about Gaza, just a little, and still have to deal with the aftermath of the Nationality Law — demonstrations, social media frenzy, political propaganda — and also to make time for pondering a crisis in the coalition. A real crisis. So much so that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued an ultimatum at the beginning of this week: Either we get to an agreement or we go to an early election. 

An agreement on what? On the next dramatic legislation this coalition must deal with. That is, a new Draft Bill that is supposed to settle, once and for all, the issue of Charedi draft deferment. Israel’s Supreme Court rejected an earlier version of government legislation and set a deadline by which new legislation must pass, or else there will be no deferments. Legally speaking, Israel will be forced, against its will, and against logic, to immediately move to draft thousands of unwilling Charedi youngsters. 

The bill is ready. It is supported by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), and by a large majority in the Knesset. It is supported by a majority of the coalition. It can easily pass. But one faction of one Charedi party objects to it. The Gur Rebbe opposes the bill and ordered his representative in the Knesset, a deputy minister, to resign if the law passes. Netanyahu faces a dilemma: He can pass the bill and open a breach with an important Charedi ally; he can let the deadline pass and deal with a crisis following a Supreme Court decision; or he can dissolve the coalition and get more time (assuming the court gives a new coalition a chance to pass a bill). Judging by his recent ultimatum, his choice is made: legislation or early elections. Possibly in February or March.

Netanyahu made this decision for purely political reasons, both short and long term. Short term — he is the least concerned of all coalition partners about his prospects in the next election. Netanyahu is popular, his poll numbers are high, his political position is solid. It is very hard to envision an election outcome that will rob him of his current job. Longer term — an early election, if it comes before a decision is made on the legal investigations against Netanyahu, can strengthen his argument that the public wants him to stay in power. He will get elected when the public is already aware of his supposed misdeeds, or at least some of them. Long term, and this is also important, as Netanyahu sees the alliance between rightist Likud and the Orthodox parties as essential, and makes a determined and consistent effort to keep it intact.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the least concerned of all coalition partners about his prospects in the next election.

But this time, there is irony involved in Netanyahu’s insistence on a never-enrage-a-Charedi policy. In fact, most of his Charedi partners, members of United Torah Judaism, and of Shas — except for the Chasidic sect — are well aware of this irony. The legislation that is currently proposed is mild and conciliatory. It is a deal that the IDF is willing to deal with, and that most ultra-Orthodox legislators are willing to live with. They know that a better deal will never materialize. The court will not allow it, most coalitions will not allow it. Thus, the Charedi representatives know that rejecting the bill, and having new elections, carries a risk: They might wake up with a different coalition, one that will demand a tougher bill. They don’t just know it, they are afraid of it. Some of them even suggested to the prime minister to pass the bill with their support, and promised not to follow the few representatives who might quit the coalition. 

So, why does the Rebbe insist on rejection? For this, there are at least two answers. One, because of principle. Damn the consequences, his representatives will never sign on to a bill that allows for expansion of the draft. Two, because of his detachment from political realities. If the first option makes him seems idealistic, the second option makes him seem a little foolish. Both can lead us to believe a somewhat disturbing reality: Israel might go to an early election because of an unexplained decision of an elderly leader of a small and radical religious sect. 

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.