ישראל נאמן | Lectures, Articles, Tours: Israel | Mideast onTarget | Elliot Chodoff & Yisrael Ne'eman | When Tactics Become Objectives 7.8.04

When Tactics Become Objectives

07 August 2004

By Yisrael Ne'eman

The upstart reformist Shinui faction won 15 seats in the January 2003 elections and became a solid coalition partner for the Likud. Led by former journalist Tommy Lapid the party is firmly allied with Finance Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s capital incentive economic policies no less than they support PM Sharon’s Gaza Disengagement.

Quite a few Israelis support the party platform while many others would like to see Lapid & Co. replace Shimon Peres and Labor as the second most powerful political force in the Knesset. Unfortunately, many of the 15 seats were born in sin. Since 1999 the party has taken an extremely anti-haredi (ultra orthodox) political platform, knowing that as a banner, such a position grabs votes. Lapid promised never to sit in the same coalition government with the ultra-orthodox. Hence they went from one seat to six in ’99 and to15 four years later. Five years ago the Ashkenazi haredi United Torah Judaism (UTJ) and Sephardi haredi Shas factions had 22 seats between them and alienated non-haredi Israelis with their political demands.

Shas and UTJ coalition dictates included tens of thousands of draft deferments for yeshiva students (eventually 70,000 according to some estimates) and the associated billions of shekels of yeshiva funding. Demanding control over the housing ministry they arranged massive subsidies to build large apartments for haredi families. As the years progressed even more were convinced to live off the public largesse.

And then there were those Israelis who decided to live directly off welfare funds, leading to ever increasing budgets for such benefits. Shinui found the Left and Israel’s big labor unions to be irritating as well. Over the decades a labor aristocracy formed, whereby certain professions (stevedores and electric company workers in particular) received wildly high salaries because they were members of a critical union who always threatened to strike, should their demands not be met.

Shinui capitalized on voter discontent by demanding a sharp cutback on state benefits for those not participating in the workforce. The ultra-orthodox were a very high profile group, especially with the politicalization of their religious demands through coalition politics. Furthermore, UTJ and Shas favor the integration of religion and state, as opposed to most Israelis who demand separation of the two. To top it off, Shas was involved in several scandals, with intense media coverage.

So Shinui played the anti-haredi card, knowing they could rake in the ante and force an overall process of Reaganite capitalization. They succeeded all too well, but overplayed their cards. Haredi bashing was perceived as not just a tactic, but rather as an end in itself.

PM Sharon needs a Knesset majority (61) to push through the Gaza Disengagement, but he has only 59. To survive he must bring in at least UTJ with 5 seats. This past week Lapid announced a reversal of his position, realizing that economic reform and the Gaza Disengagement far outweighed his anti-haredi election promises. The party is now in the throes of a major explosion, with many members demanding they keep their promise to their voters and leave the government.

Lapid is wise enough to know not to make tactics into policy, but many party supporters are not. Too many voted for the party out of a hateful gut reaction to haredi influence in the government. Shinui was only too happy to count the votes and not consider the future consequences.

But the future is here and Lapid will have to deal with his central committee. Should he fail, the party will go into opposition (being replaced by Shas as well – 11 seats) and may very well be doomed. Success in convincing his party to stay in the coalition may actually bring the party more votes among those who considered giving them their ballot but were deterred by “baseless hatred” over haredi issues. Should Lapid sit with the ultra-orthodox in the same coalition, he will gain more respect from the Israeli public and may even expand support for Shinui by election time.