03/18/2013 12:12 EDT | Updated 05/18/2013 05:12 EDT

Did Netanyahu Pick the Wrong Poison?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heads the weekly cabinet meeting in his office in Jerusalem, Sunday, Feb. 10, 2013. Netanyahu said Sunday the upcoming visit of U.S. President Barack Obama will focus on Iran’s nuclear program, the violence in Syria and the stalled peace process with the Palestinians. (AP Photo/Uriel Sinai, Pool)

In June 1947, as the movement toward establishing a Jewish state in then British-run Palestine was reaching its apex, the Zionist leader and future first prime minister of Israel David Ben Gurion struck a deal with the powerful ultra-Orthodox organization Agudath Israel, a transaction Israelis refer to as the "status quo."

Sensibly, the agreement laid the foundation for the separation of state and synagogue in Israel, but its legacy has been the separation of Israel's ultra-Orthodox, the Haredim, from the rest of the country. Over the decades, ultra-orthodox political parties -- "political" being a relative term, since these parties serve a population that denies outright the validity of the modern, secular Israeli state -- have used the "status quo" to achieve a raft of social, educational and economic benefits unavailable to other Israelis, and to have thousands of seminary students (students is another relative term -- many ultra-Orthodox men are nominally students for life, i.e., they don't work) excluded from Israel's mandatory army service. It was a wholly unfair system and, thankfully, it now appears to have ended.

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu unveiled his new coalition government Friday, the biggest revelation was that the ultra-Orthodox parties had been excluded after serving in nearly every government since the late-1970s. The result will be a rolling back of all those benefits that have effectively allowed the ultra-Orthodox to ghettoize themselves -- doing so is a central demand of Netanyahu's new political partners.

Within a few years, Haredim will be serving in the army and, when their service to the state is complete, be forced to go out and get jobs to support their families instead of wasting away on the government dole. (A significantly reduced cohort of students will still be allowed to study Torah and Talmud instead of joining the Israel Defense Force, and one hopes the exemption will be applied to the top young ultra-Orthodox scholars -- the ones whose studies may actually benefit all of Jewry in some way.) But if Netanyahu's new government is set to end the highway robbery of the ultra-Orthodox, it is opening the door to another, potentially more damaging, problem -- that of the settlers.

Among Netanyahu's new partners is The Jewish Home, the religious Zionist party that bagged 12 seats in the January national elections. Jewish Home's 40-year-old leader, Naftali Bennett, who was previously the leader of the pro-settlement Judea and Smaria Settlement Council, advocates annexation of the entire West Bank -- land the Palestinians want for their own state.

To suggest he is not in favour of Palestinian statehood is a drastic understatement: Bennett has bluntly said "I will do everything in my power to make sure they (Palestinians) never get a state." Bennett's supporters, moreover, are the same people who recently lobbied to have Palestinians segregated on separate buses when traveling from their homes in Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank to jobs in Israel-run parts of the West Bank.

The other main partner in Netanyahu's coalition, the Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party, has mostly de-emphasized the Palestinian issue in its mandate and instead focused on the growing disparity between rich and poor in Israel. As for Netanyahu, we already know he's less than willing to lead on peace negotiations. And U.S. President Barack Obama -- the one person who could jump-start peace talks if he really wanted to -- reportedly has no plans to do so when he arrives in Israel Wednesday for a visit.

On one level, Netanyahu's trading in of the ultra-Orthodox for Jewish Home and Yesh Atid appears to be a worthwhile transaction, since revoking the Haredim's special status will mollify the other 92 per cent of hard-working Israelis who have been protesting, quite rightly, against the rapid deterioration of the middle class while the ultra-Orthodox, who contribute nothing of tangible value to the Israeli economy or social fabric, continued to suck from the government teat.

Then again, at least the ultra-Orthodox never appeared inclined to rock the national boat so long as they got paid. By empowering the settlers, Netanyahu has enabled a far more outward belligerence -- when Obama, or the next president, eventually decides to re-pursue peace between Israel and the Palestinians, the settlers will stand in the way, just as they did during the disengagement from Gaza in August 2005.

In the long run, Jewish Home's insistence on growing settlements (with tacit approval from Yesh Atid) could very well prove more injurious to the future of Israel than the black-clad, uneducated Haredim who want nothing more than a return to the shtetl life and a couple of shekels thrown their way.

For Netanyahu, it was a question, ultimately, of pick your poison.

Editor's note: Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett lives in Ra'anana. Incorrect information appeared in the original post. We regret the error.

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