What does this agreement bode for religion and state in Israel?

Emergency government and national unity?

On the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day, April 20, a coalition agreement “for the establishment of an emergency and national unity government” was signed between the Likud and Blue & White. We at Hiddush focus on matters of religion and state and the implications of the agreement on the challenges of freedom of religion and equality of civic burden.

On the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day, April 20, a coalition agreement “for the establishment of an emergency and national unity government” was signed between the Likud and Blue & White. A lot of bad blood had flown between Netanyahu and his supporters and Gantz and his supporters during the election campaign, characterized by verbal violence, attacks under the belt, demonization, and delegitimization. Still, even after the third election campaign in less than a year, no decision was made and neither of the two blocs was able to form a majority coalition of at least 61 Knesset members. The key was Avigdor Liberman, Chairman of Yisrael Beiteinu, as you can see from the graph below detailing the latest election results on March 2. Lieberman called for the establishment of a unity government based on the Likud and Blue & White, which would not yield to the dictates of the ultra-Orthodox parties, which he pledged to join. He was unwilling to give support to a narrow government including the Likud and ultra-Orthodox parties. In the end, it turned out that the establishment of a government that relies on the outside support of the Joint List would not be practical, even if Lieberman were willing to support it, for 3 Knesset members of the center-left bloc announced that they would not be willing to support this, and the rest could not put up a sufficient majority to form a government.

Knesset election results (March 2, 2020)


As a result, another dead end came about, leading to increased pressure on both Netanyahu and Gantz to reach agreement between them, for the alternative was to hold a fourth election during the Corona crisis. This would have seemed unbearable in the eyes of the public and even in the eyes of many in the political system. In this state of affairs, and after many intense negotiations and crisis moments, the parties reached an agreement anchored in a 14-page document, which Netanyahu and Gantz signed this week. The public has been tired out from the repeated elections, and there's majority support for the agreement, even with all its weaknesses, as was shown in a report after the agreement had been reached. The irony is, of course, that in supporting most of the agreement, only a minority of the public believes that Benjamin Netanyahu will live up to his promises and obligations under the agreement. This anomalous situation will accompany the new government for the duration of its existence and will place recurring question marks on its ability to implement the agreement. The basis of the agreement, despite the large numerical discrepancy between Likud and its partners and Blue & White and its partners, Is PARITY, which means full equality of the blocks in representation and decision making. It seems that without accepting this equality, It was not possible to break through the dead end that the parties reached, wherein no bloc could manage to reach the minimum of 61. Will this equality result in understandings and agreements between the parties… or stagnation, constant stress, and mutual neutralizing that prevents any progress? Time will tell.

Knesset break-down (April 21, 2020)


As expected, the agreement has sparked renewed controversy in Israel, and the huge gap between the positions of Gantz and his people during the elections - and their willingness to sit in Netanyahu's government after declaring that they will never agree to it - makes many wonder what motivated them. The interpretations came to extremes. Ehud Barak, for example, was interviewed and explained that Gantz and Ashkenazi were probably subject to extortion by Netanyahu, following illegal information gathering about them. He is not the only one who put out this hypothesis, but it should be emphasized that there is no evidence for it.

Much has been written about this agreement, its problems and possible failures. One may read, for example, the description of the agreement and its main points here, as well as an additional analysis:

We at Hiddush focus on matters of religion and state and the implications of the agreement and government that will follow on the challenges of freedom of religion and equality of civic burden, as well as Israel-Diaspora relations. In this field, unfortunately, there seems to be no probability of progress in the near future, in complete opposition to the wishes of a large majority of Israel’s public. As mentioned, there is public support for unity, but make no mistake about it. Repeated surveys conducted by Hiddush during the past year (and even earlier) have consistently indicated that the public does indeed want unity, and most importantly - unity between the Likud and Blue & White without the ultra-Orthodox parties, or at least in such a way that they are neutralized and cannot limit the public's freedom of religion and equality. That is not what the public accepts in this agreement. Apparently only one matter in this field is explicitly mentioned – the drafting of yeshiva students in the IDF. In this regard, the agreement only partially describes this matter. As mentioned, the agreement deals mainly with regulating the delicate balance between Netanyahu and Gantz and the two blocs, and so we find a key clause in the agreement: that for the first six months the government will only deal with issues related to the Corona crisis, and during this period [and perhaps even longer], the parties will formally agree on the other issues that the government is supposed to deal with(!). However, it is clear to all, and the journalists covering the political arena see this as final - in matters of religion and state the parties will undertake to maintain the "status quo", continuing religious coercion, the violation of individual liberties and human dignity on issues related to the clash of religion and state, and the growing disconnect between Israel and world Jewry. The ultra-Orthodox media reports explicit statements by ultra-Orthodox leaders describing the agreement reached with both Netanyahu and Gantz as preserving the status quo, and at the same time – saying that this should not be talked about publicly so as not to prejudice the political maneuvers being made these days, at least until after the establishment of the government.

This means, though, that Blue & White is turning its back on these issues, for all the explicit promises it made, both written and oral.

This means, though, that Blue & White is turning its back on these issues, for all the explicit promises it made, both written and oral [See the party platform here]. This was one of the key issues for which the party voters supported it, as Hiddush’s polling consistently showed. This is about many different topics, including civil marriage, public transportation on Saturdays, LGBTQ rights, ease of conversion to Judaism, liberalization of kashrut certification, women’s status, the repeal of the mini-market law, the realization of the Western Wall Agreement with the Jewish religious movements and the Women of the Wall, consideration for Diaspora Jewry, and much more. It should also be kept in mind that the ultra-Orthodox parties will continue to control the government offices responsible for many of these issues, such as: Shabbat, kashrut, marriage, conversion, religious services, and more. If Blue & White entered into an agreement in acceptance of the status quo, it is unlikely that it will struggle to advance any of these issues, despite and contrary to its promises. On the other hand – this will lay the groundwork for fruitful opposition activity, especially from Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beiteinu, who will stand against the betrayal of the party in general and its constituents in particular.

The one explicit example already included in the agreement at this time, the drafting of yeshiva students, indicates what is to be expected. The bottom line is that the section that deals with this, despite its seemingly vague and technical formulation, Is intended to ensure that no yeshiva student will be required to serve in the military or perform civil service. The government will be able to shape the draft policy at will in a way that will ensure submission to the dictates of the ultra-Orthodox parties that are not prepared for tens of thousands of young ultra-Orthodox Israelis of draft age to be required to participate in the security burden. This, like a number of other topics [conversion, Western Wall, and more] are also linked to the matter of Israel’s rule of law and the status of the Supreme Court. All of these issues are pending before the Court and are awaiting a decision, after many rejections by the state. There is reason to assume that the Court’s rulings will lean in the direction of equality of burden and pluralism, and this leads to increased attacks against the Court.

This issue will require the close monitoring of the implementation of the agreement related to the rule of law and Israel’s civil judiciary. This is a central issue in the question of the democratic character of the State of Israel, and there is a direct connection between it and the struggle for religious freedom and equality of civic burden. On many issues that the political system has not been ready to find pluralistic solutions for – it was the Supreme Court that served as a luminous beacon for protecting these values. This was one of the main causes of political attacks, including from the ultra-Orthodox parties, against the Supreme Court and repeated attempts to harm its powers and independence. On the one hand, it will be Blue & White that will hold the Minister of Justice's file, but on the other hand, the agreement stipulates agreement between the parties on many issues related to senior judicial and law enforcement appointments, especially in the matter of appointing new judges to the Supreme Court. These facts cause concern not only among the critics of the agreement in the context of the criminal cases pending against the Prime Minister, but also among those who fear conservative appointments and the stomping out of the Court's judicial activism.

It’s not just about the "classic" issues of pluralism and religious freedom, and not only about the many years of fighting to draft yeshiva students, but also about the future of the Israeli economy. It is precisely during these days of economic crisis caused by the Corona virus, an issue that the coalition agreement deals with quite a bit, that it is highly doubtful that it will result in a significant cut to the budgets for yeshivas and religious institutions, contrary to the public will. This is increasingly detrimental to the national need to increase the integration of the ultra-Orthodox sector into the labor market. This issue will soon arise, when the new government is required to approve a state budget in the near future. It is highly doubtful that today's Netanyahu will be able to repeat his bold steps to address the economic challenges of the early 2000s when he served as finance minister in the late Ariel Sharon’s government. One of the key steps he took to protect the economy was a drastic cut in the child allowances that the ultra-Orthodox sector enjoyed. Among the dangers lurking for the State of Israel, if you are unable to enforce core curricular studies in ultra-Orthodox education and bring ultra-Orthodox men into the labor market, many senior economists, including members of the Treasury, warn of the tremendous, impending economic harm. An analysis of the relationship between religion and state and the future of the Israeli economy can be found, for example, in Prof. Dan Ben David's work: https://www.timesofisrael.com/demography-democracy-and-delusions/; http://hiddush.org/article-23316-0-Shoresh_Institution_policy_brief_postelection_analysis.aspx

For all advocate for religious freedom, we can therefore say, as Albert Vorspan aptly titled his book: “Start Worrying: Details to Follow.”

It is clear that the work of Hiddush and the involvement of Diaspora Jewry in partnership with Israeli activists and organizations will be vital and important. The future of the State of Israel and its partnership with Diaspora Jewry are at stake.

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