HomeMiddle EastUltra-Orthodox lockdown disobedience could cost Netanyahu

Ultra-Orthodox lockdown disobedience could cost Netanyahu

Jan 28, 2021

On Jan. 18, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a late-night phone call to the home of 93-year-old Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky in Bnei Brak. What Netanyahu wanted was for Kanievsky to make sure all ultra-Orthodox schools shut down and remain closed even if the nationwide closure is prolonged. It was his second call to the rabbi’s home in less than 10 days.

Kanievsky is considered one of the top leaders of the ultra-Orthodox public, but until recently, he had been a relatively anonymous figure to the general, secular Israeli public. Only in the past year did Kanievsky become familiar to all Israelis, and not in a positive way. This rabbi is the one who instructed Heredi boys schools to open religious primary schools during the lockdowns despite government orders to the contrary. To many Israelis, the defiance of the Lithuanian leader in the ultra-Orthodox stream expressed the great power wielded by the ultra-Orthodox over the prime minister of Israel.

Netanyahu’s political alliance with the ultra-Orthodox over the years protected him from electoral defeat. But as the prime minister’s legal issues get riskier by the day, he has become more vulnerable. In fact, it seems that Netanyahu’s phone call to Kanievsky did him more harm than good.

Israel’s morbidity rates continued to run rampant despite the successful vaccination campaign. Thus, at midnight on Jan. 8, the country went into closure, which is expected to last at least until Jan. 31. All commerce is closed and the educational system is shut down. Still, as aforementioned and contrary to government instructions, quite a few ultra-Orthodox schools continue to operate. This explains why the infection rates are much higher among the ultra-Orthodox versus the rest of the population. Evidently, much anger is being accumulated in the public over ultra-Orthodox disobedience, with some of the anger directed at Netanyahu.

Back to Netanyahu’s phone call. Rabbi Kanievsky suffers from fragile health, so his phone calls are mostly taken by his 30-year-old grandson Yanky. That was the case with the one placed by the prime minister. Talking to the grandson, Netanyahu showed evidence of the grim reality: Dozens of people are dying every day, and the COVID-19 wards in the hospitals are terribly overcrowded. Still, Netanyahu did not receive an immediate answer from the rabbi.

In fact, despite the prime minister’s request, Rabbi Kanievsky did not send a clear directive that night to his people to stop the studies. Simultaneously, the media began to release reports and photos of ultra-Orthodox institutions that are open, on the background of horrific pictures of hospital wards that are collapsing due to the multitude of very sick coronavirus patients. At this point, Netanyahu understood that his alliance with the ultra-Orthodox bloc is causing him much political damage and immediately started to enforce law and order in the ultra-Orthodox cities.

Suddenly, policemen raided Bnei Brak, Israel’s largest and most crowded ultra-Orthodox city, where they dispensed fines and faced down youths. These are steps that had never been adopted before so relentlessly. Then the ultra-Orthodox claimed they were being harassed. In short, all hell broke loose, a veritable war erupted at the beginning of the week in which a bus in the heart of Bnei Brak was set on fire; the police, for their part, responded with stun grenades and arrests. All this served to intensify the overall negative sentiments against the ultra-Orthodox sector, even on the parts of Likud voters.

Netanyahu discovered in the polls the direct, negative repercussions of the events of recent days. According to the most recent poll taken by Channel 12, the prime minister lost two Knesset seats. The one who gained is Yair Lapid, who currently holds the posts of opposition chairman and Yesh Atid chairman. For years, Lapid has been fighting against ultra-Orthodox coercion and now leads the second-largest party in the country.

These developments carry critical political significance for Netanyahu just two months before the March 23 elections. At the beginning of the week, it still seemed that he was on a roll due to the proven success of the vaccination campaign he led as well as of his electoral blitz with the Arab society. He thought victory was close, and then along came the aggressively contagious British mutation that turned everything upside down. Only minor containment has occurred since then. The result? Not only will schools and businesses remain closed, but now Netanyahu demands an extension of the closure.

The fact that Israel is holding an election in two more months turns the COVID-19/ultra-Orthodox issue into a very explosive one. Yisrael Beitenu Chairman Avigdor Liberman, who has championed efforts to topple Netanyahu for two years already, said today the following: “Most of the Israeli public abides by government decisions, behaves responsibly, but has become hostage to Netanyahu and the ultra-Orthodox parties. … Instead of imposing a differential lockdown on towns where infection rates are between 20 and 30%, sometimes even more, they (the government) impose collective punishment on all of us.”

Until COVID-19 reared its head, it was difficult to inflict electoral damage on Netanyahu because of his contacts with the ultra-Orthodox. The reason was that other politicians, such as Defense Minister Benny Gantz, also courted the same group. But now things are toxic. Gantz is leading the struggle in the Knesset and the government to raise the fines on law-breakers of lockdown instructions — a battle clearly waged against the ultra-Orthodox leadership and public.

The person who summed up the situation most aptly was in fact ultra-Orthodox senior Knesset member Moshe Gafni. In an angry speech he made to the Knesset on Jan. 27, Gafni said, “We, the ultra-Orthodox, have two problems: The first is that we look alike [all dressed in black and white], so if you see someone on a rampage and he’s violent so then it must be me; he looks like me. And the second thing is that we are allied with Netanyahu; that’s the situation. Now, all the “anyone but Netanyahu” runoff is being sent in our direction. If we had gone with Gantz, whom I feel is not suitable to be a prime minister nor even a Knesset member … we wouldn’t be under attack now. I have not heard one word in this discussion about how the Tel Aviv beaches are full. I haven’t heard about those underground nightclubs that operate during the lockdown; I haven’t heard anyone ganging up against them. … It’s disgraceful.”

It is difficult to assess the extent to which Netanyahu will suffer electorally due to his alliance with the ultra-Orthodox. But it is clear that he will, indeed, suffer.

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