Deputy Health Minister Ya'akov Litzman
Deputy Health Minister Ya'akov Litzman Photo by Olivier Fitoussi
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As usual, ultra-Orthodox politicians left the important decisions and the big surprises to the last possible moment of the campaign: Wednesday night, two key rabbis met in Jerusalem – the Admor of Gur and Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach – to forge an alliance that will change the balance of power within the Ashkenazi Haredi party, United Torah Judaism, and perhaps even influence the party’s conduct when conducting coalition negotiations to enter the next government. Specifically, the alliance strengthens the faction of UTJ that opposes any compromise over the issue of drafting yeshiva students.

Another meeting also took place on Wednesday. At this one, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the Sephardi Haredi party, Shas, hosted a delegation of rabbis from the Yemenite community. The goal was a last-ditch effort to undermine the new Koah Lehashpia party and its leader, Rabbi Amnon Yitzhak, a popular preacher from that community. Shas’ internal polling indicates that thousands of votes are slipping away in his direction. Yosef, who had a mild stroke last Shabbat, arose from his sickbed and, for the first time, attacked Yitzhak on camera. He didn’t even dignify his target with the title “rabbi.”

These two meetings on Wednesday mark the culmination of a Haredi election campaign unlike any of its predecessors. In recent months, senior rabbis have been drawn into personal spats with other rabbis and well-publicized attacks. Shas’ three-headed political leadership – Aryeh Deri, Eli Yishai and Ariel Atias – has managed to restrain itself and stop the flow of anonymous leaks from their respective camps. But the peace has been shattered by the rabbinic mud-slinging.

Wednesday, UTJ – which is actually a joint slate comprised of two parties, Agudath Israel and Degel Hatorah – held its main campaign rally at Jerusalem’s International Convention Center. Almost all the rabbis who spoke focused on the “danger” that yeshiva students might be drafted into the Israel Defense Forces.

Until then, the effort to wage a clear ideological battle against the secular parties had been stymied by the internal rivalries. But in UTJ that has ended for now, thanks to a cease-fire between Degel Hatorah’s mainstream faction and the splinter group headed by Auerbach that is aimed at preventing these rivalries from spilling into the street on Election Day. The compromise was reached via the mediation of Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, a member of the Gur Hasidic sect, who succeeded where earlier mediators had failed.

Litzman actually belongs to Agudath Israel, which represents the various Hasidic sects. Degel Hatorah represents the “Lithuanian,” or non-Hasidic, branch of Ashkenazi Haredi Jewry. Thus depending on who you ask, his efforts can be seen either as peace-making, or as the Gur sect’s revenge for past quarrels and preparations for future ones.

Litzman views himself as the man of the hour and hopes to be rewarded with the most senior government post UTJ receives, should it enter the next government. But the Lithuanian leadership is suspicious of the way Litzman and Gur managed to reassert their former dominance within UTJ – most likely at Degel Hatorah’s expense.

Following his meeting with the Admor of Gur on Wednesday, Auerbach agreed to add his name to the traditional joint letter issued by Ashkenazi Haredi rabbis on the eve of the election to urge all Ashkenazi Haredim to vote UTJ. For the past few months, there had been serious doubts about whether Auerbach would sign: His loyalists were threatening to run their own party, Netzach, due to their quarrel with the mainstream faction of Degel Hatorah. But with the rabbis now presenting a united front, UTJ hopes it will be able to maintain its current five Knesset seats, and perhaps even add a sixth.

Ever since the Lithuanians’ unquestioned leader, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, died last summer, Auerbach has been waging a bitter battle against the man who replaced him, Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, and refusing to recognize his leadership. Shteinman currently controls Degel Hatorah’s two MKs, Moshe Gafni and Uri Maklev, as well as the party’s newspaper Yated Ne’eman.

During the height of the battle, Auerbach set up a rival paper, Hapeles, and even registered his own party, Netzach. Thus many Haredim had feared the quarrel might spill over into street violence. But so far, only one incident of serious violence has occurred: A few weeks ago the editor of Hapeles was attacked; a member of Shteinman’s camp was recently indicted for the assault.

But the rift within the Lithuanian camp isn’t just personal; it also has an ideological component: Auerbach represents the more extremist faction. After the Tal Law, which governed draft exemptions for yeshiva students, expired in August, for instance, Auerbach ordered his students not even to report to draft offices, even though this was a mere formality that wouldn’t actually result in them being drafted. He also waged war against a portion of the standard IDF medical exam administered at draft offices, as a result of which the army agreed to exempt Haredim from having their genitals examined.

Essentially, Auerbach represents the right flank of the mainstream Haredi community: Beyond him lie only a handful of anti-Zionist sects that refuse to participate in the election at all. He won’t agree to any compromise on the issue of drafting yeshiva students, and in exchange for his signature on the letter urging Haredim to vote, the Admor of Gur promised that all coalition negotiations related to this issue, as well as the final decision on whether to enter the government, will be fully coordinated with him.

But even so, Auerbach’s followers know he didn’t sign enthusiastically, to put it mildly. He skipped Wednesday's campaign rally in Jerusalem, officially on the pretext that he is still recovering from a recent catheterization. Two senior members of his camp told Haaretz that most of his followers will nevertheless obey his directive to vote UTJ. However, they added, a minority will not: They will cast blank ballots, or find some other way to register a protest vote.