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Ultra-Orthodox Parties Not in Netanyahu’s Pocket

Politicians from the ultra-Orthodox Shas and Kadima center parties might be joining forces to create a bloc against Prime MInister Benjamin Netanyahu in advance of the elections next week, writes Akiva Eldar.  
Ultra-Orthodox Shas party campaign stickers depicting party leader Aryeh Deri (R) and spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (L), are seen on a car in Jerusalem January 17, 2013. A fixture in successive governments, Shas, the ultra-Orthodox party draws its support from the fast-growing community of religious Jews of Middle Eastern origin whose spiritual leader is the 92-year-old, Iraqi-born rabbi Ovadia Yosef. According to opinion polls, it will maintain its 11 seats in parliament. REUTERS/Ammar Awad (JERUSAL

It seems at times that the 11th commandment in the 2013 model of Israeli politics is the ban barring religious parties from joining a government that is not led by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. However, this is not the case. The ultra-Orthodox are not in Netanyahu’s pocket, certainly not now that the strong man in the ultra-Orthodox-oriental party Shas is once again Aryeh Deri, who returned to politics a couple of months ago after a 13-year hiatus; and all the more so when there are growing indications in recent days that Deri and co-founder and former member of Kadima Haim Ramon, his old buddy from way back, from the days of the “dirty trick,” have joined forces.

The term “dirty trick” was coined by the late former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1990 with reference to the attempt by Shimon Peres, then chairman of the Labor party, to form a narrow government headed by him and made up of the left-wing factions and the ultra-Orthodox parties in place of the second national unity government led by the then-prime minister, the late Yitzhak Shamir of Likud. It was the first time in the history of Israel that a government was toppled by a no-confidence vote. The two dominant figures pulling the strings behind the scene of the move then were Haim Ramon and Aryeh Deri.

Since that dirty-trick affair, the two buddies pursued each his own political path. Now, it seems that the cunning old fox Deri and the political acrobat Ramon have revived their longstanding alliance. They are dusting off their saddles and like cowboys in a typical Western, they are going down town to settle some business there. These days, the two are behind the initiative to form a blocking bloc that would foil the establishment of a government led by Netanyahu and enable the ultra-Orthodox parties to support a government led by Hatenua head Tzipi Livni or Labor party leader Shelly Yachimovich.

On the face of it, the main problem awaiting Netanyahu on Jan. 23, the day following the parliamentary election in Israel, assuming he comes out on top at the ballot box, is the distribution of portfolios among the members of the “right-religious bloc,” including the Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu, HaBayit HaYehudi, Shas and Yahadut Hatorah. 

According to public opinion polls, this coalition, often named in short "the right bloc," is expected to garner 65 mandates, at the least. This would allow Netanyahu to form a government in a flash and leave out the center parties or, alternatively, give him a significant advantage in the negotiations with the center parties.

This scenario is based on the assumption that the ultra-Orthodox parties, each one separately and all together, are in Benjamin Netanyahu’s right pocket and that, on the other hand, if they were to form a coalition with the rival bloc, it would be no less than blasphemy.

However, Netanyahu apparently fails to take into account the political implications of the alliance between Deri and Ramon, who serves as a confidential advisor to Livni and who is busy these days tightening relations between Livni and his Shas soul mate. Deri, for his part, does not hide his dovish positions in the political arena — positions that are consistent with the groundbreaking Jewish law ruling by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of Shas.

Netanyahu is well aware that the real troubles are awaiting him the morning after the election. The declaration by the Labor party leader, Shelly Yachimovich, that she would not join a government led by Netanyahu, as well as his own announcement — that he would not allow Tzipi Livni, in her capacity as the Hatenua leader, to have anything to do with political affairs — limit to the minimum his room for maneuver.

And if Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid makes good on his pledge not to serve as a fig leaf for a right-wing government comprising the ultra-Orthodox parties, Netanyahu would not be able to form a government without the ultra-Orthodox parties. So that the 50 mandates that the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu bloc is expected to land according to the polls, render the ultra-Orthodox parties the hottest commodity in the political bazaar. In this context, an exhausting shuttle diplomacy conducted by Aryeh Deri and his associates between the two blocs is a quite possible scenario; however, it isn’t at all sure whether it would ultimately lead to their teaming up with Netanyahu, let alone finding themselves in his pocket.

It should be borne in mind that during the tenure of the present government, Yachimovich has taken care to legitimize her reputation in the eyes of the ultra-Orthodox. Thus, while playing up to the settlers, she steered clear of any legislative initiative and public campaign smacking of an anti-religious attitude. Accordingly, she opposed, for instance, a bill proposed by Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz) to allow public transportation on Saturdays [Ed.: Prohibited, as car driving, in general, under the Jewish religious law]. And to justify her stance, Labor’s leader came up with an ostensibly "social" rationalization: "Turning Saturday into a holy day of shopping is a manifestation of the culture of consumerism that permeates our lives," she said, scoring a point or two to her credit in the ultra-Orthodox camp.

What’s more and even more disturbing, Yachimovich deserted the public campaign for equal sharing of the burden, driven by the Israeli Forum for Citizen Equal Rights and Obligations, which calls for the recruitment to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) of ultra-Orthodox rabbinical college (“yeshiva”) students — her subtle excuse in this case being, “We should stop using controversial terms whose sole purpose is to increase hostility and division with the aim of making political profit.” Her stance and statements on the issue won her plenty of compliments in the ultra-Orthodox media. The popular Israel-based ultra-Orthodox website Behadrei Hadarim applauded her, noting that “regardless of the media incitement and the favorite national hobby of slamming the ultra-Orthodox — a trend boosted by the 'suckers' camp [as those sharing in the burden ironically call themselves] — Yachimovich has been careful not to be dragged along and she is relentlessly delivering the message of national unity.”

And as if all that were not enough, Yachimovich rushed to publish on her website, the day following the passing away of the prominent ultra-Orthodox spiritual leader Rabbi Yosef Elyashiv, the contents of an ingratiating letter of condolence she had sent to the Yahadut Hatorah politicians. In this case, too, Yachimovich sought to curry favor with the ultra-Orthodox, ignoring the fact that Rabbi Elyashiv was one of the most passionate inciters against the secular public.

So far for Yachimovich. Let's do some math now. If 55 to 57 center-left bloc Knesset [Israeli parliament] members (19-20 of Labor; 19-20 of Hatenua, Yesh Atid and Kadima, taken together; 4-5 of Meretz; and 11-12 of the Arab parties) recommend to the president to entrust Yachimovich with the role of forming the next government, Shas and Yahadut Hatorah may well pave her way to the leadership. Such a coalition is possible provided two, far from simple, conditions are fulfilled: The first condition is that the Zionist parties agree to rely on "foreign support" accorded by the three Arab parties, the way the late Yitzhak Rabin did twenty years ago. The second, obvious, condition is that Lapid compromise on his stance regarding the recruitment to the IDF of ultra-Orthodox “yeshiva” students.

As a proactive measure, Netanyahu was quick to state that he was aware of “the contacts and coordinative moves taking place between some of the leftist parties and the ultra-Orthodox parties.” Minister of Education Gideon Saar, who heads the Likud election campaign staff, reiterated the claim that the left is plotting — God forbid — to forge an alliance with “sectarian parties” with the intention of overthrowing the Likud government.

As said, stranger things have happened. Having served as finance minister in the second Sharon government (2003-2006), Netanyahu realizes that he has good enough reasons for concern over a potential coalition of Labor and the ultra-Orthodox, since at the time, the Likud favored as its coalition partner the Shinui party, headed by [the late] Tommy Lapid, the biological and ideological father of Yair Lapid, leaving Shas and Yahadut Hatorah to bleed in the opposition. During the tenure of that same government, the Ministry of Religious Affairs, Shas’ apple of the eye, was dismantled and Shas was kept some distance away from the public purse. Notwithstanding his old age (92), Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who is endowed with an exceptional memory, most probably still remembers how, a year earlier, in 2002-2003 — when Netanyahu was serving as finance minister — the Likud expelled his [Shas’] representatives from the government following their vote against the budget bill, which entailed austerity measures. 

Shas Chairman Eli Yishai dubbed the move taken by then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at the time “a dirty trick concocted by Labor and the Likud.”

In contrast to that still vivid trauma, Ovadia has a soft spot in his heart for the Labor Party, especially since Rabin, in his capacity as prime minister, was sympathetic to Deri even after his indictment on bribery charges (for which Deri was later sent to prison). President Shimon Peres, too, has not missed any opportunity to make a pilgrimage to the home of Ovadia and bestow on the ultra-Orthodox ample funds and flattery. Shas and Yahadut Hatorah enjoyed sitting on the Ehud Barak government, as well, side by side with [anti-clerical]  Meretz and  Shinui.

And speaking of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Adina Bar Shalom, the eldest and much loved daughter of the rabbi, who only a couple of days ago was interviewed on this site, had joined last year the Isreali Peace Initiative group, which supports the Arab peace initiative. Accompanied by representatives of the group, she visited Palestinian President Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] at the Muqata (Palestinian National Authority headquarters) in Ramallah and delivered the blessing of her father, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. (By the way, not long before that visit, the latter had wished the Palestinian leader a premature encounter with his forefathers. …)

In his biography of Deri, Joel Nir describes actions of violence against Deri and his family and even threats against Rabbi Ovadia by right-wing activists seeking to avenge Shas for joining the Labor-Meretz-Shinui government led by Barak (in 1999). Yaakov Katz (Ketzele) and Ze'ev Friedman-Haver (Zambish), two of the settlers’ leaders, appeared one day in Deri’s bureau and warned him: “If you join a leftist government, we will never forget it, nor forgive you or your rabbi.” Radical rightist activist Avigdor Eskin went as far as to place in front of Deri’s home a pig's head bearing the sign: “Authorized as kosher [in accordance with the Jewish law] by Rabbi Aryeh Deri.” Hundreds of settlers used to stage nightly rallies in front of Deri’s home shouting at him: “Deri the thief” and “You and Rabbi Ovadia will be held accountable for the dead.” Extremist thugs broke the teeth of Deri’s son and an unknown assailant hurled a shock grenade at his home. Those days are still alive in the memory of Rabbi Ovadia and his followers, hounding them to this very day.

In conclusion: Had I been a habitual gambler, I would not have bet my modest savings on the possibility that we may see soon a ministerial group photo of Eli Yishai and Aryeh Deri standing side by side with Meretz Chairwoman Zahava Gal-On and Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid in the traditional ceremony of swearing in the new government at the president’s residence. On the other hand, with Ramon and Deri around, I would not fall off my chair if it does happen.

Akiva Eldar is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. He was formerly a senior columnist and editorial writer for Ha'aretz and also served as the Hebrew daily’s US bureau chief and diplomatic correspondent. His most recent book ( with Idith Zertal), Lords of the Land, on the Jewish settlements, was on the best-seller list in Israel and has been translated into English, German and Arabic. In 2006, the Financial Times named him among the world’s most influential commentators.  He received the annual “Search for Common Ground” award for Middle East journalism and the Peace through Media Award of the International Council for Press and Broadcasting. Eldar was born in Haifa, Israel, in 1945 and graduated from Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he majored in economics, political science and psychology.

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