Kulturkampf between Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu gets vicious
Hours after she first heard about Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's verbal attack on Russian immigrants for "selling pork and praying at churches," the Russian-immigrant owner of a grocery store in Netanya said Sunday she feared that Shas might try to shut her business down.
"I wasn't going to vote this year but now my husband says we have to vote for [Avigdor] Lieberman, otherwise they [Shas] will shut us down," she said, referring to the Soviet-born head of Yisrael Beiteinu.
"It's true we don't sell pork here but I'm from Russia and that might be enough [to close us.]" Like many Russian-speaking Israelis, who number over a million, she understood the harsh words from Shas' spiritual leader as an insult to an entire community.
Yisrael Beiteinu's campaign slogan, which was originally aimed at Israeli Arabs, declared that there can be "no citizenship without loyalty." On Sunday, it was hurled at Shas. Just like Israel's Arabs, most members of the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi community which Shas represents don't serve in the army. Yisrael Beiteinu thus questions their loyalty and right to citizenship.
Many people in Shas admit that Yosef's comments about pork and churches have benefited Lieberman. At the same time, many Yisrael Beiteinu officials say they fear that the "punishment" promised by Yosef has lost them religious voters. But they know they have gained others in return, mostly Russian-speakers considering voting for either Yisrael Beiteinu or Likud.
"There are three that deserve thanks for Yisrael Beiteinu's popularity," Lieberman said Sunday. "The police, [Ta'al MK] Ahmed Tibi and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. No doubt at the moment the rabbi deserves first prize."
By no means is this the first time Yosef's statements in an election campaign have backfired. In 1999 he talked about "the Russians that cropped up from the netherworld."
Still, the effect might not be as strong as in 1999. "We've grown used to Ovadia Yosef's rants," said MK Sofa Landver, number 5 on Yisrael Beiteinu's party list.
Yosef's statement wasn't devoid of rationale. His repeated use in his speech of the phrase "the Russian party" was intended to stress Lieberman's pedigree, not just to stir sectarian sentiment among his core voters.
But Yosef's efforts might very well fail. In both the makeup of its party roster and the scope of its goals, Yisrael Beiteinu has long ceased being solely a "Russian party." If in 2006 one-third of its voters were not Russian immigrants, the figure is now up to half. Clearly, increasing the number of non-Russian voters for his party was Lieberman's goal this campaign.
At the moment, Lieberman stands poised to be a serious contender for the position of prime minister in future elections. But for now Lieberman has his work cut out for him. He has to deal with police investigations against him as well as concerns over his position in the coalition that forms after February 10.