Haredi faction balks at agreement with Likud, demands reopening of talks

A faction within the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism (UTJ) party demanded Thursday night to reopen negotiations with incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, saying that they did not agree to details agreed with the party’s second faction Agudat Yisrael, after they were made public earlier in the day.

The non-Hasidic Degel HaTorah faction, led by UTJ No. 2 Moshe Gafni, has three lawmakers in the current Knesset, while the Hasidic Agudat Yisrael has four. But since party leader Yitzhak Goldknopf of Agudat Yisrael is expected to become housing minister and possibly resign from the Knesset as part of the so-called Norwegian Law, Degel HaTorah could soon have four MKs, meaning the 64-strong incoming coalition won’t have a majority in the 120-member Knesset without it.

Degel HaTorah’s three current MKs and another former lawmaker, Yitzchak Pindrus — who could soon return to the Knesset if Goldknopf resigns as MK — penned a letter to Netanyahu, noting that while the faction had attempted to negotiate as a unified bloc with Agudat Yisrael, the final agreement leaves out matters over which they were still in talks.

“We ‘discovered’ appendices in the signed agreement, including things that we opposed during the negotiations, even roles and membership of bodies which until today we have avoided taking part in at the behest of our rabbis,” the letter read.

The faction expressed opposition to the agreement to grant Goldknopf a spot on the key decision-making security cabinet, which would put the party in the position of potentially sending people to war. The party has for decades avoided taking up ministry posts so as to not bear responsibility for actions taken by the country’s secular leadership.

Degel HaTorah also said the deal does not sufficiently address mandatory military service exemptions for yeshiva students, the country’s housing crisis, and kosher phone policies — phones used by Haredim that are stripped of internet, radio, messaging and video capabilities. Degel HaTorah also demanded assurances on salaries for teachers and kindergarten staff.

Following the letter, Agudat Yisrael officials were cited by Channel 12 news on Friday saying that Goldknopf would not, after all, take up a seat in the security cabinet, despite the earlier reports that he would.

Agudat Yisrael and Degel HaTorah have run on a joint slate since 1992, barring a period in 2004-2006 when they split over a disagreement about cooperating with the coalition, reuniting before the subsequent election.

Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu informs President Isaac Herzog that he has managed to form a government, in a phone call shortly before a midnight deadline, December 21, 2022 (Likud spokesperson)

In the lead-up to the November elections, Gafni had threatened to split Degel HaTorah and Agudat Yisrael unless certain demands were met.

Netanyahu announced Wednesday night that he had succeeded in forming a coalition, despite the absence of a full coalition deal signed by all parties, with several outstanding issues remaining.

Netanyahu and his Likud party promised to quickly form a stable, right-wing government after Otzma Yehudit, Religious Zionism, Noam and his long-time ultra-Orthodox partners Shas and United Torah Judaism won 64-seats in the 120-seat Knesset in the November election.

However, talks were bogged down for weeks as the parties squabbled over ministerial roles and policy needs.

As part of Likud’s previously reported coalition deal with UTJ, revealed on Thursday, Goldknopf is slated to become housing minister, legislation will be advanced to allow gender-segregated public events, and a panel will be formed to review eligibility requirements for Jewish immigration to Israel.

UTJ and other expected partners of Netanyahu’s coalition have proposed narrowing the standards for Jewish immigration to Israel under the Law of Return. A cornerstone in Israel’s relationship with Diaspora Jewry, the Law of Return establishes that a Jew, or a grandchild or child of a Jew, is eligible for Israeli citizenship.

The sides also agreed to support the judicial reform legislation proposed by the next justice minister, slated to be a Likud lawmaker. The right has long sought to overhaul checks and balances between the judicial and political branches, making the former more subordinate to politicians, including through weakening the Supreme Court and increasing politicians’ influence on judicial appointments.

Likud party chairman Benjamin Netanyahu, right, shakes hands with United Torah Judaism party leader Yitzchak Goldknopf in the Knesset plenum on November 21, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The draft agreement showed UTJ secured promises to legislate further military exemptions for full-time religious study and to pass a quasi-constitutional Basic Law on the value of Torah studies. UTJ has set both as conditions for supporting the next state budget.

Exemptions to military enlistment for the ultra-Orthodox have been a charged topic for years and helped kick off several years of political instability culminating in the November election.

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