How Ultra-Orthodox Perks Set Israel Election Agenda


(Bloomberg) -- The hefty benefits that ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties have wrested from Israeli governments for decades have been a source of resentment for many in the country. But it took an on-again, off-again ally of Benjamin Netanyahu to turn it into the issue that could lead to the prime minister’s political demise. When former defense minister Avigdor Liberman, protesting ultra-Orthodox military draft privileges, unexpectedly refused to join a Netanyahu-led government, the prime minister had to abandon efforts to form a coalition after an April election. Now, ahead of a Sept. 17 revote, polls suggest Liberman’s stance has strengthened him enough to put him in a position to force Israel’s longest-serving leader from office.

1. What privileges do the ultra-Orthodox enjoy?

The government allows ultra-Orthodox, or haredi, men enrolled in religious studies to avoid army service, which is compulsory for other Jewish males. (Jewish women are also drafted but can claim exemption based on religious observance.) The concession has set a pattern of lifelong religious study for many haredi men, who can receive stipends from the government until 67, the retirement age. Those who seek jobs are often unprepared for the modern workforce because ultra-Orthodox boys’ schools focus heavily -- and by high school, exclusively -- on religious learning. The military exemptions also deny the ultra-Orthodox the connections and training army service affords. As a result, while many haredi women work, their large families -- an average of about seven children each -- frequently rely on government handouts. The birth rate among the ultra-Orthodox, who account for 12% of the country’s 9 million people, is triple that of other Israeli Jews.

2. Why do the ultra-Orthodox enjoy these privileges?

Draft exemptions began around Israel’s 1948 founding. At first, the deferments were limited to just a few hundred students assigned to help rebuild the preeminent schools of Jewish learning destroyed in the Holocaust. As the ultra-Orthodox grew in number, they won greater political clout, and the number of annual exemptions ballooned to more than 30,000 by 2017, according to a report prepared by the Israeli parliament’s research center. Ultra-Orthodox men, known by their black hats and long black coats, say they are doing their part for society by studying ancient Jewish texts. But the drain on the economy is widely resented. Other politicians, including former Finance Minister Yair Lapid, have tapped into the discontent. A law passed in 2014 required the army to draft increasing numbers of ultra-Orthodox men each year. But the measure was rolled back the following year, after Netanyahu put together a government with haredi political parties. Israel’s High Court has demanded yet another law spreading the burden of army service more equally across society.

3. How’s the tension playing out in this election?

Liberman’s campaign posters read, “Yes to a Jewish State. No to a state ruled by Jewish law.” While his nationalist party, Yisrael Beiteinu, won just five of parliament’s 120 seats in April, polls now suggest it could take eight. If the surveys pan out, Netanyahu could find himself again at Liberman’s mercy because the prime minister wouldn’t have a clear path to forming a coalition government without Yisrael Beiteinu and the haredi parties joining. Liberman has called instead for the formation of a unity government of his party, Netanyahu’s Likud and the centrist Blue and White bloc led by former military chief Benny Gantz, which is polling about even with Likud. Blue and White, which is also calling for a secular coalition, has said it won’t sit in a government led by Netanyahu.

4. How has Netanyahu responded?

He’s fighting for what would be a fifth term using a combination of scare tactics and incentives to nationalists to vote for him rather than other right-wing parties. With great fanfare, he vowed to annex land in the West Bank, the territory Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 war that the Palestinians claim and hope to make the core of a future state. He’s tried to brand Liberman a leftist, and he’s warned that a Gantz-led government would rely on support from non-Zionist Arab parties. He’s claimed, without evidence, that rivals are going to steal the election from Likud through voting fraud. And he’s played up his diplomatic experience, with campaign posters showing him rubbing shoulders with U.S. President Donald Trump and other world leaders.

5. What’s at stake for Netanyahu?

In July, Netanyahu became Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, surpassing the country’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion. The milestone came at a time when the country is facing threats from Iran and its proxies on its northern front with Syria and Lebanon, and from militants in the Gaza Strip, a sliver of Mediterranean coastline that’s home to 1.9 million Palestinians. Beyond that, Netanyahu is facing possible indictment on bribery and fraud charges, and re-election may be his best chance for staying out of court. He’s been trying to win agreement from prospective governing partners to support legislation that would shield a sitting Israeli leader from prosecution, but the clock is ticking. In early October, he’s scheduled to present his case before Attorney General Avihai Mandelblit, who’s served notice that he plans to indict unless Netanyahu can sway him at that hearing.

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