Threat of New Israeli Elections Looms as UTJ Demands More Funding for Religious Scholars If the coalition fails to pass a budget by the end of the month, the government will fall, forcing new elections By Debbie Mohnblatt/The Media Line The leader of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism (UTJ) party has threatened to pull out […]
The Media Line: Threat of New Israeli Elections Looms as UTJ Demands More Funding for Religious Scholars
Threat of New Israeli Elections Looms as UTJ Demands More Funding for Religious Scholars
If the coalition fails to pass a budget by the end of the month, the government will fall, forcing new elections
By Debbie Mohnblatt/The Media Line
The leader of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism (UTJ) party has threatened to pull out of the coalition if Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu does not approve the addition of 600 million shekels ($166 million) earmarked for supporting religious scholars to the state budget, Israeli media reported on Saturday. If UTJ head Yitzhak Goldknopf, the construction and housing minister, indeed pulls the party out of the coalition and the government fails to pass a budget by May 29, the government will be dissolved and new elections will be called.
Under Israeli law, a government that fails to pass a budget through the parliament by a previously set deadline is dissolved, forcing new elections. As recently as 2020, the government fell due to an inability to pass a budget. Passing a budget is seen as one of the greatest obstacles for a coalition to overcome since every party has its own interests.
Dr. Yonatan Freeman, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said that the attempt to pass a budget will reveal how secure the current government is. “This budget is really one of the major tests that the coalition has in terms of seeing whether or not the glue that is holding it together is really strong,” he told The Media Line.
He explained that Goldknopf’s ultimatum has put Prime Minister Netanyahu in a bind. In order to keep the coalition in place, Netanyahu needs to either meet UTJ’s demands or reach a compromise with them. But agreeing to UTJ’s demands for increased funding for full-time Torah students might increase support for the opposition since a large portion of the population disagrees with the additional funding.
Some opposition parties have framed the additional support for religious scholars as “giving the most to those who give the least in terms of taxes and service,” Freeman said. Full-time Torah students receive tax benefits and are not required to enlist in the Israeli army.
“Most of the population, according to polls, are agreeing with that criticism,” he said.
Dr. Ilana Shpaizman, a political studies professor at Bar-Ilan University, said that UTJ will most likely not leave the coalition and that Netanyahu probably will successfully pass the budget.
UTJ knows “that if they leave the coalition, we will go to elections, and they will not have a chance to receive as many funds as they received this time, even without the additional funds they require,” she told The Media Line.
She added that no party in the coalition is interested in new elections, especially given the ongoing protests against the proposed judicial reforms, which have seen more than 100,000 Israelis take to the streets weekly for the past five months.
Netanyahu’s challenge, Freeman said, is to pass the budget without strengthening the opposition. That might require bringing another party into the coalition “to fill that void that is being formed right now,” he said.
Various parties from the coalition have started to talk about forming a national unity government, Freeman said. “There is more and more talk of maybe having to bring someone else in, like [former Alternate Prime Minister] Benny Gantz,” he said.
Shpaizman said that it would be “not smart politically” for UTJ to leave the coalition. But if UTJ does leave, Netanyahu would most likely reach out to Gantz, she said. She described him as the only member of the opposition who might agree to join the coalition.
Besides UTJ’s threats to leave, Netanyahu is also facing discord within his own Likud party relating to the proposed judicial reforms. Freeman said that “Likud rebels” opposed to Netanyahu’s handling of the reforms might lead to the collapse of the coalition, requiring Netanyahu to bring in additional support from the opposition.
One party that will likely not cause problems for the coalition is Shas, the other ultra-Orthodox party in the coalition.
“I do not think Shas supports the UTJ demands,” Shpaizman said. She noted that Shas Chair Aryeh Deri is pragmatic and understands the damage that an ultimatum would cause to the coalition. “Also, they already received what they wished for,” she said.
Freeman said that Shas would have more to lose in new elections than UTJ would. Almost all UTJ voters are ultra-Orthodox, whereas the Shas voter base is more heterogeneous. Someone who voted for Shas in any given election is more likely to defect to another party than a UTJ voter is.
That more diverse voter base explains why “Shas historically has been more prone to getting into some sort of an agreement,” Freeman said. “They might be more up for compromise.”
Freeman also noted that Shas had already dealt with a public relations crisis relating to Deri’s conviction of tax evasion in 2022. That year, Deri was appointed to serve as interior minister, health minister, and deputy prime minister, but the Supreme Court ruled in 2023 that he was ineligible to serve in those roles because of his previous conviction.
“Things relating to their imaging may cause them to be less inclined to new elections,” Freeman said.
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