Did Shas Back the Wrong Mayoral Candidate in Jerusalem?

Party leaders are banking on the improving health of spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef to rally the troops and give them a boost in the polls.

Yair Ettinger
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Yair Ettinger

With Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s situation having improved enough that he regained full consciousness, Shas is emerging from its preoccupation with the health of the party’s spiritual leader and getting back to the business at hand. Specifically, to the October 22 municipal elections, above all in Jerusalem, where Shas is running a mayoral candidate as well as a city council slate.

MK Aryeh Deri, the chairman of the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party, has bet the house on mayoral candidate Moshe Leon, as has his unlikely partner in the venture, Yisrael Beiteinu chairman MK Avigdor Lieberman. Leon also has the support of some MKs from the Ashkenazi Haredi party, United Torah Judaism.

To their Haredi fans, these MKs are political geniuses. But Leon’s candidacy threatens to become a personal failure for each and every one of them. Several senior Shas and UTJ officials said this week that the choice of Leon was a mistake.

One Haredi politician who has no connection to the incumbent mayor said it’s hard to explain to Haredi voters why they shouldn’t reelect Mayor Nir Barkat, who has done well by the community. It’s even harder to explain the “scandalous, evil and corrupt” hookup with Lieberman and Leon, he said: The former is one of the Haredi community’s greatest enemies, while the latter, a former aide to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, helped draft a bill to force Haredim to serve in the army.

Shas is hoping Yosef’s illness will rally the troops. But the Haredi politician said this may actually hurt Leon, because the possibility that Yosef, who is Deri’s key backer, could soon die gives Deri’s rivals for control of Shas a greater incentive to see him fail.

Nevertheless, said a Shas official who did not wish to be identified, it’s too early to eulogize Leon. “Two and a half weeks [until the election] is an eternity,” he said, and Deri might yet succeed in uniting Haredim behind his candidate.

Leon, a veteran Likud member who is Sephardi and religious but not Haredi, launched his mayoral campaign only after representatives of all the main Haredi factions promised him support: MK Moshe Gafni of UTJ’s Degel Hatorah faction, who represents the “Lithuanian” (non-Hasidic) Ashkenazi Haredim; MK Yaakov Litzman of UTJ’s Agudat Yisrael faction, who represents the Gur Hasidim; MK Meir Porush of Agudat Yisrael, who represents the smaller Hasidic sects; and of course Deri.

Since about 90,000 to 100,000 of Jerusalem’s approximately 260,000 eligible voters are Haredi, this ostensibly means Leon will need to woo only slightly more than 30,000 non-Haredi voters away from Barkat.

But recently, Leon has discovered that there’s no such thing as “all the Haredim.” Bnei Torah – a new party that broke away from Degel Hatorah following last year’s bitter fight over who should lead the Lithuanian community after the death of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv – has decided to run its own mayoral candidate, who is liable to take thousands of Haredi votes away from Leon. And the Tov party, which represents working Haredim and is running for the Jerusalem city council for the first time, is expected to back Barkat.

Moreover, once Haredi unity has been shattered, other Haredim might also decide to back Barkat rather than Leon. The rabbinic leaders of the three biggest Hasidic sects, Gur, Belz and Vizhnitz, still haven’t declared for Leon, and Barkat is actively courting them. Degel Hatorah’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, did declare for Leon, but he now seems to be drawing back: At a meeting of his party’s Council of Torah Sages earlier this week, none of the rabbis present even mentioned Leon’s name.

Yesterday, Leiberman met with Bnei Torah’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, to try to persuade him to withdraw his party’s mayoral candidate. But Auerbach is considered unlikely to agree. Deri, meanwhile, is working behind the scenes, fearing that doing so openly would hurt Leon’s chances. But unlike his Ashkenazi colleagues, he cannot afford to sit on the fence: He has too much riding on Shas’ success in the municipal elections – not just in Jerusalem, but also in towns like Beit Shemesh and Elad. Two weeks ago, Leon was supposed to receive Yosef’s blessing in a videotaped meeting, but Yosef fell ill and was rushed to the hospital. Will Leon ultimately obtain the coveted meeting, or would this be perceived as exploiting Yosef’s condition? It all depends on how fully Yosef recovers over the next two weeks.

Shas’ party organ, Yom Leyom, is openly urging readers to “make [Yosef] happy and “work for his health” by voting Shas. But aside from that, the party is currently confining itself to plastering Jerusalem with posters saying “We love you, our master and teacher,” a reference to Yosef. The posters mention neither Shas nor Leon, but the implicit message is clear: If you love Yosef, vote for them.

Aryeh Deri, right, with his mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.Credit: BHOL B'Hadrei Hadarim

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