A Coalition in Trouble: Between Yariv Levin, the Haredim, and Bibi (Hard Questions, Tough Answers- May 01, 2023)

Q. On Sunday April 30, the Knesset returned for its summer session after a month-long holiday break. Why is the coalition now postponing legislation for its ‘judicial reform’? Did the anti-reform demonstrators win? Did PM Netanyahu get cold feet?

A. The coalition is postponing its judicial reform legislation for a number of interlocking reasons. It committed publicly, when the spring legislative session ended a month ago, to participate in compromise negotiations at President Herzog’s residence that could continue at least until the end of May. Those negotiations have neither succeeded fully nor failed. Prime Minister Netanyahu has publicly committed to allowing time for them to succeed. Basically, this commitment reflects recognition that months of anti-reform demonstrations succeeded in obliging the coalition to at least temporarily rethink its program and its priorities.

Then too, the Netanyahu government must pass a budget by the end of May or, by law, the Knesset will be dissolved. This could fully occupy the legislators in the coming weeks. The task is not simple because budget-preparation has been neglected hitherto in favor of the thus-far abortive judicial reform effort. Then too, in order to form this coalition Netanyahu made extravagant commitments to his partners whose fulfilment could generate a huge inflationary deficit. Note that the previous Bennett-Lapid coalition left Netanyahu a budget surplus.

The security situation is also demanding attention. Demonstrations against the government have echoed within the IDF. This sends Israel’s neighbors a problematic message. The Islamists among them, led by Iran, believe they perceive a weakening of Israeli deterrence due to internal dissent, exacerbated by a weakening of the American security commitment in the Middle East. Last week’s appearance by Iranian Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian, peering into Israel through the northern border fence with Hezbollah and Lebanon, seemed eerily symbolic.

Months of massive anti-reform demonstrations and polls unfavorable to Netanyahu, his coalition and its judicial reform initiative have indeed left their mark. The prime minister appears to be caught between his need to feed the beast of his extremist coalition partners and his extremist minister of justice on the one hand, and, on the other, his need to extricate himself politically from a disastrous initiative that has pitted many of the country’s key institutions--security, finance, judicial--against him. In characteristic Netanyahu fashion, he is playing for time, albeit for only a month. Note that the coalition has registered no legislative achievements whatsoever during four months in office.

Q. Minister of Justice Yariv Levin is considered the driving force behind judicial reform. Where does he stand on the delay?

A. Levin has emerged in the eyes of many as a genuine threat to democracy. Last week, at an impressively large coalition-sponsored rally to boost the judicial reform initiative, Levin gave a vicious and mendacious speech condemning the High Court of Justice for shielding terrorists, murderers and rapists. The crowd--mostly Orthodox followers of extremist ministers Ben Gvir and Smotrich and not Likudniks--stomped Tehran-style on huge photos of High Court President Hayut, long-retired High Court President Aharon Barak and Attorney General Baharav Miara. (At rallies in Tehran the crowd stomps on Israel’s flag.)

Levin plainly wants to maintain his judicial reform legislative momentum rather than to pause. Netanyahu has suffered repeated blows to his prestige: the demonstrations, the delay, his lawyers’ quest to find a compromise end to his trial, the need to exile (to Puerto Rico!) his troublesome son Yair because his tweets embarrass the prime minister, the coalition’s collapse in opinion polls from 64 MKs to 50, President Biden’s prolonged snub. Levin, sensing Netanyahu’s dilemma, is plainly grasping for the reins of power, at the very least as Likud number 2.

Judicial reform, which Levin has openly acknowledged would compromise Israeli democracy, is his ticket. His followers clearly prefer ‘Jewish’ (their own extreme version) to ‘democratic’ in defining Israel. Note, however, that a handful of liberal Likud Members of Knesset, led by the outspoken David Bitan and Defense Minister Yoav Galant, are beginning to dissent. Their votes could be critical in the event of a governmental crisis over judicial reform or the budget.

Q. The Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) care less about who chooses High Court justices--a major judicial reform focus of controversy--and more about protecting their growing population from military service and financing its expansion. Can they too wait while the budget passes?

A.The Haredi parties’ coalition agreements with Netanyahu provide for passage of a law completely exempting their youth from the draft prior to passage of the budget. At this point it looks like the most they will achieve this month is passage on a first reading (out of three), which will still apparently deliver to them the huge budgetary supplements they want for the Haredi community. Sources close to Netanyahu, along with a few leading rabbis, are talking guardedly about a six-month postponement of passage of the law, reflecting concern over an angry backlash from the non-Haredi majority of the public.

The Haredim have also been promised a Basic Law: Torah Studies, which classifies yeshiva studies on a par with university studies as qualification for government employment. The parallel conscription law will exempt virtually all Haredi youth from age 22 from military service and ‘compensate’ non-Haredi youth who do serve with significant salary raises. The end result would be the more-or-less official creation of a professional (rather than a citizens’) army, paralleled by a large and ever-growing ‘army’ of ultra-Orthodox youth whose right not to serve their country is enshrined in law and whose existence is subsidized generously by the non-Haredim.

Q. This is hardly an innovation. IDF conscription has been below two-thirds of army age youth for some time. The Haredim have been subsidized and exempted for some time. What is new?

A. What is new is the growth of the Haredi community with its subsidized high birth rates and particularly its expression in this coalition. It seems to have been promised everything it wants in return for supporting Netanyahu’s quest to avoid conviction for fraud by corrupting the judicial system. Rarely have the Haredim had this kind of leverage and never has their community, with its Knesset contingent, been this large.

Secular and liberal-religious Israelis, all in the opposition, seem finally to be seriously contemplating the demographic and political realities embodied in the flippant remark, some weeks ago, by Knesset Finance Committee Chairman Moshe Gafni, leader of the Ashkenazi Haredi party United Torah Judaism. In an interview, Gafni stated that in a future Israel half the population can study Torah and the other half can defend the country. (Gafni added something to the effect that, “and then they can switch”, which no one took seriously; note that those few Haredi youth who do serve in the IDF seem singularly unfit for service in terms of the values they have been imbued with.)

Further, the only way to pay for the proposed subsidies for the Haredim and for salary raises for the IDF will be to enlarge the budget, thereby growing the deficit even further. Then too, without the now-frozen controversial initiative for judicial reform restrictions on the High Court, that body is almost certain to disallow the proposed conscription legislation as an undemocratic attempt to create two separate and unequal classes of Israelis.

In short, the Haredis’ appetite to maintain a parasitic lifestyle while constantly enlarging their community both demographically and politically is serious sharpening the conflict of values, both Jewish and democratic, embodied in the agenda of Netanyahu’s problematic coalition.

One eloquent condemnation of the Haredi agenda in this coalition, with important historical depth, was provided last week in Haaretz by Yisrael Harel, an Orthodox settler leader: “The heads of the Haredi public, who demand--along with inflated budgets--exemption from any sort of military or community service, have never faced reality. Opposing Zionism even at the outset of the Holocaust, most of their flock was exterminated (except, of course, their leadership... who fled for their lives as befits leaders who abandon a sinking ship first). The Haredim, Harel explains, could themselves be active in the IDF and the High Court, thereby avoiding the current clash, if they would only integrate into Israeli society.

But then, as the Haredim well know, they would no longer be Haredim...

Bottom line?

A. As we enter a critical month--for Netanyahu’s coalition, for Israeli society and security--we can only frame key questions:

Will judicial reform initiatives remain on hold all month? Or will Levin’s impatience and rising clout and ambition, and Netanyahu’s multiple dilemmas, determine otherwise? Will Likud dissenters weigh in forcefully against the judicial reform initiatives or will they bow to Levin and party discipline?

Will the negotiations taking place under President Herzog’s auspices succeed in producing a broadly agreed judicial reform compromise that could end the current crisis?

Will a Haredi conscription bill be enacted in the coming month or months, thereby sowing yet more dissent in Israeli society? Will the High Court allow it?

Will the budget pass by the end of May, or will the coalition collapse under its own weight of corruption, Haredi greed, and anti-democratic and anti-pluralistic initiatives?