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)
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.

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