In its coalition agreement with incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, the ultra-Orthodox Shas party secured billions of shekels in promises to advance its core agendas, including supporting disadvantaged Israelis, benefits to the religious community and its institutions, and improving healthcare services, especially in the so-called periphery.
Laser-focus on its socioeconomic and religious priorities has been a longtime winning strategy for Shas. The party did not make any independent security or foreign policy demands, and largely acceded to Likud requests beyond its core interests.
In addition to the policy points, Shas secured six ministerial portfolios to be handed out to five of its 12 lawmakers. Party leader Aryeh Deri will take two of the portfolios, returning to lead the Interior Ministry once again and the Health Ministry. He will also be a deputy prime minister for the entirety of the government’s term.
The religious services and welfare portfolios will also go to Shas, as well as two additional ministers within — but not leading — the welfare and education ministries.
To take on his ministries alongside the other members of Israel’s 37th government when they swear in on Thursday, Deri pressed for a change to one of the fundamental laws undergirding the structure of Israel’s government. Convicted of tax offenses in January and given a suspended sentence, Deri would have had to go to the Central Elections Committee for a decision on whether he was fit to become a minister, turning on the question of whether his crime carried moral turpitude.
To eliminate the need, on Tuesday the incoming coalition passed a law that limited the test only to custodial — rather than suspended — sentences. Netanyahu rallied his Likud party to fast-track the legislative promise.
Deri is also slated to rotate his interior and health ministries jobs for the finance ministry, mid-way through the government’s term. In the interim, he secured separate budgetary authority over the Interior Ministry, without Finance Ministry involvement. He also cleared NIS 5.85 billion ($1.65 billion) for improvements to the healthcare system, with a special focus on improving services in disadvantaged and far-flung communities outside central Israel.
Shas routinely refers to itself as a “social” party and its election slogan was “hungry for change,” a double entendre that nodded to poor families especially challenged by Israel’s rising cost of living. The party delivered on one of its core election promises, securing “at least” NIS 1 billion ($280 million) to renew a pre-loaded card program to provide food aid to needy families. The program will operate out of Deri’s Interior Ministry.
The following are key promises from Shas’s coalition deal with Likud, signed Wednesday. These coalition deals are not legally binding, and their clauses are not always implemented.
Expanding welfare benefits and fighting the rising cost of living
In addition to securing another NIS 1 billion for its food card program, Shas both demanded and signed on to a range of policies to support ultra-Orthodox socio-economic development, increase workforce participation, reduce costs associated with government bureaucracy, and generally combat sharply rising living costs.
The party secured a promise for the government to develop a five-year plan for ultra-Orthodox social-economic development, touching on areas that include housing, transportation, healthcare, education, strengthening local authorities, infrastructure, employment, and closing socioeconomic gaps.
Israel’s ultra-Orthodox population is disproportionately close to the poverty line, with a large percentage of its men choosing full-time religious study over workforce participation. And, due to education in a parallel system that does not always include core curricular subjects like English and math, combined with the challenges of respecting an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle in a secular work environment, many community members find it challenging to obtain lucrative mainstream jobs.
To encourage workforce participation, the Shas deal also includes a negative income tax and tax credits for working families, the latter in the form of partial credit points for each additional child.
The party also signed on to initiatives to reduce bureaucracy for self-employed Israelis, as well as a licensing reform to enable new immigrants to work in professions for which they received certifications in their countries of origin.
Shas also pushed to recognize religious degrees as equivalent to higher education degrees, for the purpose of competing for government tenders, which often list out education requirements for positions.
To encourage the building of approximately 300,000 new dwellings to address Israel’s housing crisis, the party also wants to reduce bureaucratic barriers to building. Bureaucracy also will be further slashed for imported products to adopt European standards in lieu of idiosyncratic Israeli ones for even more goods and products, reducing both cost and barriers to importation.
In line with promises made by Likud, Shas signed onto a commitment to freeze utilities and municipal property tax rates, as well as to look into freezing fuel and price-controlled good prices.
Removing a particular source of ire in the ultra-Orthodox community, both Shas and fellow ultra-Orthodox party United Torah Judaism obtained commitments to cancel taxes passed by the outgoing government to make single-use cutlery and sugared drinks more expensive.
Among other cost-of-living initiatives, the party committed to supporting the privatization of the Ashdod port, looking into options for cheapening or subsidizing gluten-free food, backing a Likud promise to provide free education from birth to age 3, and building a new ultra-Orthodox city.
However, the party would roll back the current, and contentious, agriculture reforms passed by the outgoing government, meant to lower protectionist barriers against food imports. Instead, Shas said it would look for a “balance” between reducing prices and strengthening domestic agriculture.
Increasing socio-economic benefits to soldiers, while slipping service
Shas, along with UTJ, is pushing for two big laws that will help exempt ultra-Orthodox men from service.
First, the parties continue to push for an amendment to the current conscription law that will further lower ultra-Orthodox military conscription quotas, letting men study in religious institutions instead. Second, the parties are pushing for a new Basic Law: Torah Study, which will raise the legal standing of Torah study and may give a firmer basis for continued religious study exemptions to service.
Alongside this move, Shas is supporting Likud-initiated policies to financially bolster soldiers.
The proposals would raise enlisted soldiers’ salaries by 20% for their period of compulsory service, and bump up combat soldiers’ pay to a level akin to minimum wage. Eligible veterans would see their scholarship funding bump up to 100% under the From Uniform to Studies program, in line with a promise Likud made while trying to torpedo the legislation in an effort to topple the outgoing government.
The plan would also give every soldier a free study year for each year of service and create an affirmative action plan for veterans applying to study medicine, law, computer science, accounting, or engineering. It would also increase resources and support for soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Pumping in funds to improve healthcare access and services
Shas party sources have said that Deri wanted the health portfolio in line with the party’s focus on helping underserved communities. Healthcare access and resources vary greatly across Israel, and communities disconnected from Israel’s central regions are especially disadvantaged in this regard.
In preparation to move into the Health Ministry, Deri secured a NIS 5.85 billion budget addition to improve access and services. Among other uses, the money is earmarked to reduce the cost of health services to patients, improve hospital technology, increase the number of hospital beds, improve infant care, and reduce appointment wait time.
Accompanied by a number of policy priorities and authorities accompanying Deri into the Health Ministry, Deri secured a promise to receive this funding without Finance Ministry weigh-in.
Connecting the periphery to the mainstream
Shas has for years focused on supporting, and building support in, communities beyond Israel’s main cities and urban sprawl.
The party has inked commitments to better connect these peripheral regions to the rest of the country, as well as reduce the costs of moving between the periphery and the center.
Shas has signed on to supporting a bullet train to run from Kiryat Shmona in the north to Eilat in Israel’s south, increasing public transport to the periphery, canceling recent transportation reform and returning public transport price subsidies for peripheral communities, canceling a planned congestion tax on highways, and supporting a law to enable a Tel Aviv metro, after joining a politically-motivated block against a metro bill pushed by the outgoing government.
It would also support creating another international airport, as well as privatizing and expanding the Haifa airport.
The party also wants to increase student discounts for public transportation, and give yeshiva and kollel religious school students a similar 50% discount.
To encourage economic development in the southern Negev and northern Galilee, Shas wants to support the regions turning into biotech and advanced agritech centers.
Keeping the religious ‘status quo’?
Like all parties, Shas has language in its agreement committed to preserving Israel’s “status quo” between religion and state. To Shas, this means rolling back hated reforms made by the outgoing government, as well as pushing a few new ones.
In addition to the tax on single-use utensils and sugared drinks — pitched as environmental and health matters, but seen as disproportionately affecting ultra-Orthodox communities — Shas wants to roll back reforms made by former religious services minister Matan Kahana.
Kahana pushed through a reform to liberalize the kosher certification market, by both letting establishments and manufacturers choose any municipal rabbinate to supervise, and in a piece to go into effect in January 2023, to open the market to other Orthodox supervision providers.
Shas and UTJ want to cancel this reform, but Shas separately wants to unify kashrut standards across the rabbinate.
It also wants to cancel a Kahana directive that changed the appointment process for municipal rabbis, as does UTJ.
Other policy points shared with UTJ include: preserving gender-segregated prayer at the Western Wall, tightening eligibility to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return, backing a partial rollback of Israel’s anti-discrimination law to allow gender-segregated events and private companies to deny service based on religious belief, and a law to enable hospitals to bar unleavened food during the Passover holiday. They also agree on the need to form a committee to investigate the ability to provide land burials, include a Chief Rabbinate representative on committees approving Shabbat work permits, and allow rabbinical courts to expand their reach into civil affairs.
Shas also wants NIS 30 million ($8.48 million) to increase ultra-Orthodox youth participation in the popular Taglit Birthright program that brings Jewish young adults in the diaspora to Israel, as well the Masa internship program, which services a similar purpose.
The party also secured NIS 220 million ($62.17 million) for the construction and renovation of religious buildings, including synagogues, ritual baths, and cemeteries.
Increasing religious school funding, without core curricular demands
While maintaining the “independence” of religious education systems, Shas — along with other religious parties — secured promises to increase funding for exempted schools to 55% of public schools, and recognized unofficial schools to 75% of public school funding.
These largely religious exempted and unofficial schools will get the funding bumps, without having to integrate core curricular subjects like math, English, and science into their studies.
Alongside these promises, Shas signed on to a promise to improve public school education in Bible studies and core curricular subjects like math, English, and science. It also pushed for Zionist history and heritage classes for all faiths in public schools, including Christians and Muslims.
The party also signed on to support rolling back the outgoing government’s contentious matriculation exam reform.
The Education Ministry will also work towards absorbing religious schools into its years-old New Horizons program, which funds work in small groups between teachers and pupils and bumps up teacher salaries, among other initiatives.
Yeshiva and kollel-based religious study institutions also received a funding bump. Kollel students are married and many have children; both Shas and UTJ would have to sign onto changes affecting daycare subsidies, which the outgoing government tried to pull from full-time religious scholars.
Programs for at-risk ultra-Orthodox children will have NIS 30 million in additional funding for technical schools, as well as the formation of at-risk youth villages.
A heritage center for its spiritual leader and not-so-smart phones
Among various other proposals, Shas has also secured a promise and state funding for a Sephardic Jewry heritage center to honor its late spiritual leader and rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Along with UTJ, it supports canceling the outgoing government’s kosher cell phone reform package that would have opened up the closely held market, as well as making internet-based government services and public transportation tickets available to users without the internet or smartphones, deliberately lacking in ultra-Orthodox circles.
The party has also signed on to pass a stalled climate bill, including a promise to reduce Israel’s greenhouse gas emissions by 50% of the 2015 levels by 2030, and to advance a “humanitarian solution” for connecting illegal West Bank outposts to electricity.