Ear­li­er this week, Yuval Elizur exam­ined reli­gious polit­i­cal pow­er in Israel and January’s elec­tions and Lawrence Malkin dis­cussed the ten­sion between tra­di­tion and moder­ni­ty in con­tem­po­rary Judaism and its con­se­quences. Today, Yuval Elizur reveals Rab­bi Moshe Gafni’s pow­er­ful hand. Yuval and Lawrence are the co-authors of the recent­ly pub­lished The War With­in: Israel’s Ultra-Ortho­dox Threat to Democ­ra­cy and the Nation. They have been blog­ging here for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing all week.

Of all the rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the reli­gious par­ties in Israel’s Knes­set, none have been more pow­er­ful or out­spo­ken than Moshe Gafni, an ultra-Ortho­dox rab­bi who served as Chair­man of the Finance Com­mit­tee in the last par­lia­ment. In this key fis­cal posi­tion, the rab­bi was a mas­ter at divert­ing funds to hare­di caus­es, espe­cial­ly yeshi­va sub­si­dies to the sep­a­rate school sys­tem devot­ed main­ly to teach­ing and debat­ing the Torah — the reli­gious acad­e­mies that some sec­u­lar Jews have angri­ly char­ac­ter­ized as Jew­ish madras­sas.

Now that sec­u­lar rep­re­sen­ta­tives are in the ascen­dant fol­low­ing January’s nation­al elec­tions, Gafni has turned angri­ly on Ben­jamin Netanyahu, accus­ing his for­mer polit­i­cal ally of betray­al. But in order to form a coali­tion Netanyahu needs the votes of two new par­ties, one the tri­bune of reli­gious nation­al­ists and the oth­er of sec­u­lar Israelis. Both refuse to serve in any gov­ern­ment that includes ultras like Rab­bi Gafni, large­ly because his sup­port­ers demand con­tin­ued exemp­tion from mil­i­tary service. 

In the snake pit of Israeli pol­i­tics, it could be pay­back time for Bibi for aban­don­ing his ultra-Ortho­dox sup­port­ers in order to stay in pow­er as prime min­is­ter, and this could have inter­na­tion­al reper­cus­sions far beyond the local prob­lems of the yeshiv­ot. The rab­bi has warned that Netanyahu will soon be sor­ry” for deceiv­ing him and the oth­er rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the ultras by shame­ful­ly” leav­ing them out of power. 

In an arti­cle in the pop­u­lar dai­ly Yedio­th Aharonot, Rab­bi Gafni admit­ted that although in his for­mer capac­i­ty as Finance Com­mit­tee chair­man he was sup­posed to over­see the expen­di­tures for­mal­ly approved by the Knes­set, almost every day mon­ey was dis­pensed under the radar” — his words — for the ben­e­fit of Netanyahu’s Likud par­ty, then the dom­i­nant par­lia­men­tary group. Since Gafni now has blown the whis­tle on what are polite­ly called unof­fi­cial” bud­gets, that almost cer­tain­ly means the end of such dis­burse­ments, not only for the reli­gious par­ties but for the par­ties that will serve in gov­ern­ment when the new coali­tion is formed, prob­a­bly lat­er this month.

What dis­turbs Gafni and his reli­gious col­leagues most are the warn­ings expressed not only by the politi­cians but above all by the tech­ni­cians and experts of the Min­istry of Finance. They were, of course, ful­ly aware of the tricks used to pad bud­gets and trans­fer gov­ern­ment mon­ey off the books, but they dared not clash with any Likud finance min­is­ter or with Gafni’s own Knes­set Finance Committee. 

That leaves Gafni hold­ing a pow­er­ful hand that could embar­rass Netanyahu if he shows it. The rab­bi made it clear that through the years he had accu­mu­lat­ed sub­stan­tial infor­ma­tion about how to tam­per with the bud­get and would have no hes­i­ta­tion in using it against the rul­ing par­ties that are will­ing to shut him out of gov­ern­ment and prob­a­bly will suc­ceed. His most pow­er­ful trump most like­ly would be dis­clos­ing pay­ments believed to have been fun­neled through Bibi’s for­mer gov­ern­ment to sup­port ille­gal West Bank set­tle­ments, for exam­ple the ones that put down a few armed fam­i­lies in trail­ers atop Pales­tin­ian hill­tops and then spread, seek­ing offi­cial recognition. 

The estab­lish­ment and expan­sion of these and oth­er more orga­nized set­tle­ments is viewed by the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion as a prin­ci­pal bar­ri­er to any peace set­tle­ment between Israel and the Pales­tini­ans, and Netanyahu has always insist­ed they do not have the sup­port of his gov­ern­ment. It is not hard to imag­ine how it would put him at a dis­ad­van­tage if all this comes out while he is deal­ing with Washington. 

Yuval Elizur is a sixth gen­er­a­tion Israeli, liv­ing in Jerusalem. The author of sev­er­al books, he is a for­mer deputy edi­tor and eco­nom­ics reporter for Israel’s largest dai­ly news­pa­per Ma’ariv, and has served as a Jerusalem cor­re­spon­dent for The Wash­ing­ton Post and The Boston Globe. A vet­er­an of two wars, he was the Colum­bia School of Journalism’s first Israeli graduate.

Yuval Elizur is a sixth gen­er­a­tion Israeli, liv­ing in Jerusalem. The author of sev­er­al books, he is a for­mer deputy edi­tor and eco­nom­ics reporter for Israel’s largest dai­ly news­pa­per Ma’ariv, and has served as Jerusalem cor­re­spon­dent for The Wash­ing­ton Post and The Boston Globe. A vet­er­an of two wars, he was the Colum­bia School of Journalism’s first Israeli graduate.