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Israel’s ultra-Orthodox: Unorthodox partners for peace?

History has shown that the longer the ultra-Orthodox are excluded from the Israeli coalition, the more likely are the chances that they forge alliances with left-of-centre and dovish partners. Could the Haredi parties be the ones to tip the balance in favor of a peace agreement?

By Romana Michelon

Police arrest an ultra-Orthodox man at a mass demonstration against plans to draft haredim into the Israeli army. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

As of late July, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is once again making global headlines. Largely the result of the diplomatic efforts made by US Secretary of State, John Kerry, this is the first time since 2010 that chief negotiators representing Israel and the Palestinian Authority confront one another in direct, albeit mediated, peace talks.

Many are pessimistic about the likelihood that this round of negotiations will lead to a breakthrough. The volatile situations in neighboring Syria and Egypt distracts the parties involved from focusing on reconciliatory progress. As though this were not enough, Prime Minister Netanyahu recently authorized the construction of 1,200 new housing units in settlement blocs and Jerusalem neighborhoods beyond the Green Line, fueling Palestinian doubts as to the sincerity underpinning Israel’s declared commitment to a two-state solution. While de-emphasizing the importance of settlements, the Israeli administration has resorted to its classic criticism of the PA’s supposed complicity in the spread of hatred and ideas of destroying Israel amongst Palestinian children.

While the outcome of the current talks may look gloomy, there are good reasons not to discard them just yet. Particularly, after the January elections and subsequent cabinet formation, it appears increasingly likely that Israel’s ultra-Orthodox or Haredim, politically represented by United Torah Judaism and Shas, are developing into fully-fledged partners for peace.

>Read more: Demonizing and conflating Arabs and ultra-Orthodox

In January’s vote, United Torah Judaism and Shas won a total of eighteen seats in the Knesset, and were therefore able to substantially contribute to the formation of a majority government. Despite their electoral power, neither one was included in the current Israeli coalition. Instead, the unexpected alliance between Likud and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, the latter of which rose to popularity on a fervently anti-Haredi platform, led to a coalition with the liberal Hatnua and far right Jewish Home party.

So far, the effect of this exclusion appears to be the redirection of the Haredim towards a moderate position, favorable to the advancement of the peace process. For one thing, in an attempt to take revenge for taking their place in the coalition, the ultra-Orthodox parties have initiated a vicious campaign against the Jewish Home party. Most interestingly, they have openly expressed disregard for the settler movement, and have repeatedly urged Netanyahu to adopt the Arab Peace Initiative. As this proposal is premised on territorial compromise and the establishment of a Palestinian state, such a move represents the concrete adoption by the ultra-Orthodox of a dovish, concessionary vision for peace.

In addition to attacking the Jewish Home, the Haredim have openly moved away from their traditional alliance with Likud. United Torah Judaism Member of Knesset Moshe Gafni, in an interview with Israeli daily Israel Hayom, announced his party’s new preference for Labor, which, under Shelly Yachimovich, constitutes the coalition’s largest opposition party. By supporting Labor, United Torah Judaism explicitly confirmed the party’s reconsideration of Israel’s territorial withdrawal from the West Bank.

In spite of these developments, most secular Israelis would pool the Haredim with extreme right-wing parties such as Jewish Home, and would never foresee a positive role for the community to play in the peace process. To a certain extent, such considerations are grounded in empirical evidence. Indeed, seeing how time and time again, the ultra-Orthodox electorate has spoken out against any type of two-state solution, and how in recent years their leaders have openly supported the settler cause, it is hard to imagine ways in which the community would constructively contribute to Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy.

Public skepticism aside, it is important to also acknowledge the many efforts that the ultra-Orthodox have made in the direction of peace; the 1979 Likud-brokered Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty received full support by Israel’s then-only ultra-Orthodox party, Agudat Yisrael. What more, without Shas, Prime Minister Rabin’s Labor-led government would not have been able to pass the 1993 Declaration of Principles (as part of the Oslo Accords) through the Knesset. No matter how hard many may have tried to depict the Haredim as indistinguishable from the Israeli far right, the support that the ultra-Orthodox have provided to these key peace agreements renders such assessment outright spurious.

The ambiguity in characterizing the ultra-Orthodox stance on matters that impinge upon the peace process can be attributed to their dependency on state funds. Indeed, the community is known to adjust its foreign and defense policy outlooks to the whims and wishes of the party in power, and generally aims at using this type of support as a bargaining tool to negotiate the continuous influx of tax money to ensure the sustenance of the Haredi way of life. As Yesh Atid’s criticism of the ultra-Orthodox community overshadows Israel’s ruling coalition, Shas and United Torah Judaism see their traditionally-privileged position in society crumble before their eyes. This time around, they have no choice but to embark on a quest for new political allies.   

While political opportunism generally is nothing to write home about, the fact that it has generated support for fruitful Israeli-Palestinian negotiations by the ultra-Orthodox is something that ought to be noted and embraced. In more concrete terms, the longer the Haredim are excluded from the Israeli coalition, the more likely are the chances that they forge alliances with left-of-centre and dovish partners. In this case, their electoral strength could tip the balance in favor of certain peace agreements passing through Knesset, and could thereby constructively assist the recently restarted peace process.

Romana Michelon is a graduate student of Conflict Resolution at King’s College London. She holds an MSc in International Relations from the University of Amsterdam, and has worked for think-tanks in Madrid and Maastricht. Her postgraduate dissertation delves into the role of the Jewish ultra-Orthodox community in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. She tweets @RomanaMic.

Demonizing and conflating Arabs and ultra-Orthodox
Tens of thousands protest plan to draft ultra-Orthodox into Israeli army

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    1. Kolumn9

      The Haredi parties are classic political opportunists. They have no ideology on the Israeli/Arab conflict. The only thing they care about is their own sectarian interests which mostly revolve around defending the ever widening budgets of Haredi schools and religious institutions. As such they are only an ally if the left manages to win an election or if they are excluded from a right-center coalition. Note that were they to be excluded from a left-wing coalition they would become more right-wing than the right-wing. And if they were included in a right-wing government they would go back to being right-wing. So, seriously, what was the point of this article? That if the Haredim are paid sufficiently that they would support a peace treaty? Of course. Likewise if they were paid sufficiently they would support annexation, expulsion, and any other policy that the government they are a pat of chooses. Is there anything new in this? As you point out the answer is no. Are they going to take a consistent position in either direction and risk the ability to enter future coalitions? Hell no.

      Reply to Comment
    2. dean

      The question, unaddressed in this article, is whether the Haredi’s future coalition partners (Labor Meretz etc) would be willing to substantially increase funding to Haredi yeshivot as well as living stipends for the families of men who devote their lives to religious studies. Without that, why on earth would UTJ or Shas support any peace agreement?

      Reply to Comment
      • sh

        There’s no need to address it because the deal doesn’t have to stay the way it was until now.

        1) Haredim are not one uniform group. Many won’t do army service, but more would be motivated go out to work if having done army service wasn’t a precondition for so many jobs in Israel. Ultra-Orthodox communities abroad don’t get stipends and almost all men go out to work. They study in their spare time. If haredi men in Israel worked too, they’d be able to feed their families and pay for the schooling of their kids in their tradition without needing stipends.

        2) Haredim and Palestinians already successfully work together. (This one’s voluntary and should surely count as national service.)

        3) I heard to my surprise a few years ago East-Jerusalem Palestinians speaking with great nostalgia about times past when Aryeh Der’i had clout, because he was the only Israeli politician to whom they’d been able to turn who would help them when they had problems. They would phone him and he listened. And if you look at the history and check this out, you can see this is not as far-fetched as you may think. http://www.chareidi.org/archives5759/terumah/Atzeres.htm

        4) We saw a very nice example of how it can work when a Haredi Knesset Member came out in solidarity with Palestinian-Israelis recently and told them so in Arabic in the Knesset. After which a Palestinian-Israeli Knesset Member thanked him in Yiddish. http://www.jta.org/2013/08/01/news-opinion/haredi-knesset-member-protests-in-arabic-arab-mk-offers-yiddish-thank-you-israel

        I think Romana Michelon has a point.

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          1) More would be motivated to go to work if the state stopped subsidizing their lifestyles.

          2) Settlers and Palestinians already successfully work together as well…

          3) Aryeh Deri and East Jerusalem Palestinians have a similar understanding of how politics works – corruption and patronage. It is no wonder they get along. Most likely some money changed hands. Interesting link. One of the last articles on there is called “Large Kenes (meeting) in Modi’in Illit against the Internet”. There is something about reading about anti-internet rallies on the internet.

          4) Yes, yes, Haredi Knesset members spurned by the coalition steadfastly standing against any and all actions by this “evil” government that might slash the funding of their institutions and may, god forbid, force children in government funded schools to study geometry.

          Romana Michelon has no point.

          Reply to Comment