Netanyahu Facing the Unholy Trinity

The negotiations to form a governing coalition constitute a debate on Israel’s national priorities, of which the top three have always been: enlarging the military, expanding the borders through settlements on the West Bank, and nurturing the ultra-Orthodox “society of students” that is supported by government benefits.

This order of priorities has never appeared as such in speeches by government leaders or in any official documents; the growth of the settlements and yeshivas were sheltered by official ambiguity, and the swelling defense budgets were always justified by external threats. But all governments since 1967 have supported these objectives to a greater or lesser extent, subject to ideological nuances, budgetary constraints or international pressure.

The security-settlement-yeshiva triangle survived because all the Jewish tribes benefited from its fruits. The secular enjoyed the prestige, vocational training and social networks they acquired from serving in the Israel Defense Forces. The religious Zionists got social status from army service, cheap housing and political influence from the settlements, and also enjoyed educational autonomy through the state-religious system, as well as a degree of autonomy in the army (through the hesder yeshiva/army service arrangements).

The Haredim waived the benefits inherent in army service, but grew from a small minority to a major social and political force with the help of government funding for yeshivas and child allowances, while also joining the settlement project to benefit from subsidized housing. The Arab community, whose children are not drafted, don’t live in the settlements and don’t study Torah, was left at the bottom of the ladder.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s outgoing government advanced these three goals determinedly. The defense budget grew to historic dimensions, settlement construction was expedited despite international objections, and the Haredi community enjoyed generous budgets and maintained its immunity from the draft. Resources flowed to the air force, to the suburbs of Jerusalem and the hills of Samaria, to Torah education and to Haredi towns.

The secular public in the big cities revolted against this policy in the summer of 2011 and massed in the streets. But the social protest leaders and their political patron, Shelly Yacimovich, missed the opportunity to achieve real change. They recoiled from criticizing the way the state budget was being spent, afraid to be labled unpatriotic leftists. Netanyahu retained his position, and the protest dissipated.

But the reasons for the protests haven’t disappeared, and the political system got the message and made a course correction. The government eventually fell because of arguments over the national priorities, starting with the issue of drafting Haredim and later over the state budget. In the early election that was called, the voters punished Netanyahu and Yacimovich and rewarded Yair Lapid, the candidate who asked, “Where’s the money?”

Now it’s Netanyahu’s turn to answer. The Likud wants a large defense budget, under the slogan “stopping the Iranian threat,” and to continue to build in the settlements for as long as America’s patience holds out. The Habayit Hayehudi party is focused on nurturing the settlements, and is prepared in return to cut defense spending and allocations to the Haredim. Shas and United Torah Judaism care only for the yeshivas. Yesh Atid wants to undercut the Haredim under the slogan “equalizing the burden,” but will support a large army and a certain amount of settlement growth. Hatnuah and Kadima will take whatever Netanyahu decides to give them to avoid wilting in the opposition. At most, they will weakly protest new settlement construction “because of the diplomatic negotiations.”

On the assumption that the partners will support a large defense budget, and that settlement growth is more dependent on U.S. President Barack Obama than on Netanyahu, the coalition debate is now focusing on the Haredim. Netanyahu must decide whether to maintain his alliance with Shas and continue to milk the middle class to benefit the yeshivas, or to give Lapid the foreign affairs portfolio and leave the Haredim outside the coalition.

His own inclination and political interests lean toward a preference for Shas; the specter of international isolation and public anger calls him to hook up with Lapid. The intensity of the pressure exerted on Netanyahu will determine his choice, and the resulting national priorities.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in an empty Knesset.Credit: Reuters

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