Shas' leadership was under a self-imposed media blackout this week.
It's not that the three leaders of the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party — MK Aryeh Deri, Interior Minister Eli Yishai and Construction and Housing Minister Ariel Atias — had nothing to say about what has been unfolding right in front of them. Rather, they concluded that it would be best to wait until Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Habayit Hayehudi leader MK Naftali Bennett and Yesh Atid leader MK Yair Lapid signed their coalition deal, at which point the party would be sentenced to four years in the political wilderness.
The reason for this vow of silence and the decision to wait is plainly obvious. Shas' top officials know, perhaps more than anyone else, that as long as there are no signatures affixed to the agreement, everything is possible.
They are quietly harboring hope that Labor Chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich makes a surprise maneuver by agreeing to enter the government, and in turn, paving the way for the haredim; but they are also realistic, and they realize that a last-minute reprieve is growing less and less likely.
This is the calm before the storm, for now.
As soon as the coalition deal is sealed and the new coalition lineup is officially presented, Shas will "launch an offensive the likes of which Israeli politics has not seen in ages," senior Shas officials pledged this week.
A senior Shas politico told Israel Hayom that "we are going to unearth all the lies and all the hypocrisy of the 'new' parties; they won't be able to get up in the morning without hearing us, nor will they be able to go to sleep at night without our voices following them."
Although Shas' leadership kept a low profile, other haredi MKs took on a more threatening posture, as did other prominent figures in the ultra-Orthodox world.
This was evident as early as Sunday, after Netanyahu met with haredi officials and told them that "I want, but I can't [have you in my coalition]." Not long after the meeting, the haredim started telling anyone who would listen that they would not fear the prospect of staying in the opposition. But behind the scenes, they are well-aware of the fact that they are heading into the political wilderness, in what may ultimately have them removed from key positions.
They are also bracing for reduced clout at the municipal level; this would be mainly felt at haredi institutions, which would lose financial support of anywhere between 500 million shekels ($134 million) and 1 billion shekels ($268 million).
Haredi wheelers and dealers are particularly concerned over the impact on the haredi schools and yeshivot. Being relegated to the opposition might result in drastic cuts to the 1 billion shekels in state funding the yeshivot are currently entitled to as per the outgoing government's coalition agreements. Netanyahu's new coalition partners may very well push to have it slashed.
Fortunately for the haredim, this budget item includes national-religious yeshivot, such as hesder yeshivot (where soldiers are allowed to learn for part of their service instead of being on active duty). As such, not all of the funding will disappear.
"There are about 1,000 ways of cutting this budget item; for example, one could set new criteria that would make yeshivot eligible for funding only if a certain proportion of their student population goes on to serve in the military," says one haredi figure who is well-versed with the intricacies of budgetary procedure.
Independent haredi schools that are not supervised by the Education Ministry, and whose curriculum does not include core subjects, might also lose funding. These schools, whose student population stands at about 50,000, get about 300 shekels ($ 80) per student (55% of the budgeting for a secular pupil).
Some 9,000 yeshiva students might lose their eligibility for income support, which currently stands at a monthly allowance of 1,100 shekels ($295). As if that's not enough, the opposition wilderness gets worse if you consider the fact that the High Court of Justice is currently deliberating the legality of all of the above-mentioned budgetary items in three separate cases. The haredi world definitely doesn't take comfort in that.
Budgets are not the only things that are potentially under the axe.
Haredi parties might feel even greater pain if they are not allowed to appoint their people to various positions. This practice, which is followed by both haredi and non-haredi parties, has won the derogatory term of "jobim," or "jobs for the boys."
Israel has 132 religious councils which provide services to municipalities. The political affiliation of those who sit at the helm of those councils is in the eye of the beholder. Shas claims that it appointed only 30 percent of the religious council chiefs, but national religious politicians say the real figure is probably 90%.
A well-known haredi pundit goes even further, saying that 100% of religious councils are affiliated with Shas. "Religious council heads have a bureau chief, a personal assistant, and other people they can put on their staff," he says. "Roughly speaking, the entire religious council apparatus is composed of 600 appointees, if not more than that," he says.
Then there are the dozens of appointees in the regular councils who perform various municipal duties, some of whom were appointed by the interior minister himself when he set up a what is known as a "special committee" to temporarily run certain municipalities. (Such committees replace the elected municipality because of special circumstances — usually corruption.) What's worse, for Shas at least, is that it will face an uphill, perhaps even impossible, battle when it tries to have its people serve as rabbinical court judges, local rabbis and in other coveted positions.
However, the pundit stresses that Habayit Hayehudi has its work cut out for it. "You can't just replace those people in one fell swoop; some of them are part and parcel of their local municipalities and are friends with mayors and policy makers," he warns. "Those who think that once Habayit Hayehudi supplants Shas at the helm, all of a sudden the entire apparatus would become national-religious, are wrong."
All of the above-mentioned "blows" are a result of the haredim's imminent departure from three key power centers: the first is the chairmanship of the Knesset Finance Committee, a post that for two successive governments has been the domain of United Torah Judaism people: MK Moshe Gafni (the current head) and Deputy Health Minister Yakov Litzman. The second is the deputy education minister portfolio, which is currently vested with United Torah Judaism MK Menachem Eliezer Moses and before him, by MK Meir Porush. The third is the Religious Services Ministry, which is currently headed by MK Yakov Margi (Shas).
"The finance committee is all about back and forth negotiations. Treasury officials come and demand funding for certain items and the chairman stonewalls until they agree to appropriate funds on matters that are dear to him," says one haredi politician who is well versed with the inner workings of budget negotiations.
"This involves good causes; it is not just about helping the haredim, [you have to decide] whether ten million shekels ($ 2.7 million) goes to special needs children or to a factory that is barely getting by, but the treasury has no interest in helping the haredim. That is how the system works," he says.
Another haredi politician who is involved in such matters says this applies to the Education Ministry as well. "Even in the Education Ministry, if the minister fails to set criteria or devise statutes to determine when certain schools get government recognition, the deputy minister will."
Gafni, a veteran haredi MK and the current head of the Knesset Finance Committee, says his job is as close as it gets to being a cabinet minister (the haredim have traditionally refused to assume ministerial portfolios so as not to recognize the state's legitimacy, but have accepted the role of deputy minister).
Gafni says that if the haredi politicians fail to address the concerns of their constituents, no one will do it for them.
"Since the state's founding, haredi institution have not been part of the state's education system, owing to the pedagogic independence they have maintained and the ideology they have subscribed to," Gafni says. "If [the secular left-wing party] Meretz stays out of the government, its institutions [i.e., those favored by its constituents] would enjoy the same funding [they usually get], because these budgets are written into law. But when it comes to the haredi institutions, some bureaucrat or finance minister may just decide one day to cut the funding or block the construction of a new haredi school," Gafni explains.
Gafni has repeatedly said he has no fear when it comes to sitting in the opposition: "From Israel's founding onward, the time haredi parties spent in the opposition has always exceeded their tenure inside the coalition governments. This time around, something grave has occurred — people lied outright," he says, referring to the alleged anti-haredi stance of Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi. "Let's say the Arab parties would one day announce that Israel should rule all the territory between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River and let's say they announce that they would endorse whatever path the government pursues. Would anyone then reject them and veto their participation in the coalition simply because they are Arabs?! We are very reliable and loyal coalition partners, and no one has even bothered to ask us whether we would agree to this or that plan to reform the military draft law. Yair Lapid couldn't even be bothered to ask us what plan would be acceptable for us; Habayit Hayehudi also had none of its members sit with us. They [Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi] said that even if an agreement was reached on a certain national service mechanism, they would have then insisted that haredim study the core curriculum [like in state-run schools], until finally the cat was out of the bag — they said they would not agree to haredim serving in the government just because they were haredim. This is unforgivable behavior. Today it is the haredim who are boycotted; tomorrow it will be the settlers' turn, and two days from now it will be the Arabs' turn — this is a self-destructing society."
A Haredi price-tag attack
The retaliatory measures that were floated among the haredim this week to protest their sidelining is, simply put, revenge. No other word would describe it so well. With each day that passed by, support grew for a price-tag attack on the most prized possession of the national religious Jews, the settlement enterprise. ("Price tag" is the name given to acts of violence or vandalism allegedly carried out by settlers against Arabs and the IDF as revenge for terrorist attacks or government decisions that the settlers oppose.)
At first, this talk was subtle, relatively speaking. For example, Deputy Finance Minster Yitzhak Cohen (Shas) suddenly had an epiphany, and realized, after almost four years on the job, that the settlements cost the state a lot of money.
"They keep saying the burden [of national service] should be shared equally, but they are responsible for all this burden when it comes to defense, foreign affairs and the economy. Migron [the largest illegal outpost until its dismantling last year] is a burden; [the illegally constructed Beit El neighborhood] Givat Ha'ulpana, where houses are now being taken apart, costs the state millions; this is both an economic and security burden," Cohen says. "There is no such thing as a sacred outpost; there is such a thing as a holy yeshiva," Cohen attacks.
Yakov Margi, the religious services minister, agrees. Margi vowed to make the lives of the new government ministers miserable. "Lapid asked [throughout his campaign] 'Where is the money?' So we will tell them exactly where the money is; it is in the housing projects that are run by national religious activists in far-flung communities, which get double the funding other projects get even though these projects are pure fantasy and never really materialize; there is no good reason to funnel funds to these projects, and they deserve no budget; we are going to apply extra scrutiny to all the funds that go to communities beyond the Green Line [in Judea and Samaria] and we are going to look very carefully at the budgets Yair Lapid takes from the have-nots to fund culture in Tel Aviv and curry favor with the social elite," Margi says.
Two leading opinion makers in the haredi world, radio commentators Yaakov Rivlin and Avi Bloom, went on a tirade against the settlement enterprise this week, calling for a boycott of products that originate from communities that lie beyond the Green Line.
Both were interviewed by Kol Barama, a haredi radio station that is usually supportive of Shas. "This is our opportunity to free ourselves from the settlers' bear hug; the worldview of ultra-Orthodox Jews frowns upon provocations that are directed at the nations of the world; I visited Karnei Shomron; every settler has a soldier there; when Naftali Bennett whines about how mothers don't sleep at night, he must be asked, 'What grants you the right to deprive those mothers of sleep at night?'; it is a result of outposts that have to be protected," Bloom said.
Rivlin went even further, calling the settlers "the smug community." He also said "settlements are unnecessary."
He even called the chief rabbi of Kiryat Arba and Hebron, Rabbi Dov Lior, a "right-wing messianic and delusional leader, who has signed a letter calling for the boycott of haredim." Rivlin also said that "it is time to sever our ties with the real estate developers in the territories." Rivlin went on to offer some practical advice: "There are going to be some budget cuts, and as a result we will save a lot of money; with that money we can buy products that are produced within the Green Line. We are going to think twice before we buy products that fund those who are beyond that line."
Bloom agreed. "It is time to make them feel the pinch in their pockets; it is time we stop being suckers," Bloom said. "Every time they need something they turn to Eli Yishai, Ariel Atias or Gafni; that boycotting on their part, the hate-filled discourse from the settler enterprise must not go unanswered."
Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan (a Habayit Hayehudi MK and possibly the next religious services minister) was appalled by Bloom and Rivlin. "I really don't get it; this can all turn upside down in the course of one hour; let's say Labor Chairwoman MK Shelly Yachimovich agrees to enter the coalition and we are left out, are we going to say we are being boycotted?! Are we going to stop buying [Shas spiritual leader] Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's books?! What's been taking place is all part of the political game. The haredim are pro-Land of Israel only if they are in the coalition? If it is important, then it must be important from the outside, too."
As far as Gafni is concerned, the haredim seek no harm when it comes to the settlements or the hesder yeshivot. "As the chairman of the Finance Committee, I helped everyone: the settlements and the hesder yeshivot. If we are all in agreement that everyone should get by in these tough economic times and that everyone should lend a helping hand to the other, that is a good thing; but if Habayit Hayehudi, which represents the settlers and the [hesder] yeshivot, targets our budgets, then everything will be on the table, and we will use all of our might."