Does Eli Yishai’s Party Have a Chance?

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Eli Yishai.Credit: Emil Salman

Behind every successful ultra-Orthodox politician is a rabbi; sometimes he’s a dominant influential figure, sometimes just window-dressing. Rabbi Meir Mazuz, head of the Kiseh Rahamim Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, is apparently of the first kind, and to understand MK Eli Yishai’s new party, Ha’am Itanu, one should hear what the rabbi whom Yishai swears by has to say.

In an interview this week on the ultra-Orthodox radio station Kol Berama, the rabbi said precisely who the new party would court. Mazuz says he is not interested in the hard-core of Shas, the party from which Yishai broke away, but rather the Orthodox of the knitted skullcap genre “who could fall straight into Bennett’s arms, referring to the Habayit Hayehudi chairman, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett. He also said the party was courting “a number of the tribes of Israel, whether the settlers, their rabbis, hardalnikim [nationalistic ultra-Orthodox ] and simple Jews who keep the Sabbath, lay tefillin and go to the army.”

Behind every politician is also a successful adviser with a plan. The Frenchman Michael Abujadir has kept carefully to the shadows for more than 20 years now, but all that time he has been Yishai’s strategist who tells him that the future is on the right. Now Yishai is gambling the whole pot on it with his new right-wing party, Ha’am Itanu. The party’s leaders say they want to end the war of mutual recriminations with Shas, and talk only politics. In other words, they would prefer to persuade the public that Shas and its chairman, MK Aryeh Deri, are leftists.

The success of the first ultra-Orthodox right-wing party depends on whether it is joined by the National Union-Tkumah faction. If it does, it could be the Big Bang in the Orthodox political world, realigning the wearers of black skullcaps with the knitted skullcaps.

A Haaretz poll taken on Thursday showed the new party with the same number of Knesset seats as Shas, each on the edge of the voter threshold, with a predicted four Knesset seats. Shas, which has steadily held its two-digit place is shaking its head in shock.

Yishai embarked on this adventure for personal reasons – his long-standing feud with Deri. But now we want to know what his spiritual patron and his strategic consultant want, and how exactly the party reached three to four Knesset seats according to surveys.

During a press conference he called on Monday Yishai avoided answering any questions as to whether he is still true to the Shas spiritual leader, the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who ruled that land could be given in exchange for peace and was against going up to the Temple Mount.

Though every opinion poll shows that the ultra-Orthodox are right-wing and nationalists, they have never produced an openly right–wing party that is hawkish on security and calls for a hard line on foreign workers, as Yishai is planning. Shas and United Torah Judaism have always hoped to be a political fulcrum so as to protect yeshiva funding and social benefits and even when they went with the right, they never forgot the rabbis’ mantra that “with the left you can do business.”

The right-wing parties – Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, as well as the extreme right, like Otzma Leisrael in the last elections, have taken full advantage of the gap between the ultra-Orthodox street and its politicians and have swept up votes since the Oslo Accords, particularly from ultra-Orthodox minorities like Chabad and the modern Orthodox. Yishai wants to take these and other such groups by storm.

MK Yoni Chetboun, currently a Habayit Hayehudi MK is expected to bring with him votes from French new immigrants that he brought to Habayit Hayehudi at the time, but it is not clear how many of them will cross the lines with him. He could actually strengthen Yishai’s standing among the ultra-Orthodox, many of whom regard him as a hero for voting against his own party on the matter of drafting the ultra-Orthodox. However, according to the editor of the French language edition of Hamodia, Daniel Hayek, Yishai has a problem with the French immigrants because many of them are living in Israel without becoming citizens.

The head of Likud’s campaign among the ultra-Orthodox, Yaakov Vider says Likud has about 3,000 ultra-Orthodox members. “Does Yishai threaten ultra-Orthodox strength in Likud? “If there is concern that Yishai won’t pass the electoral threshold, support for him will decline massively. If he rises in the polls that can be a great success. Of course, we think it’s better to support Likud, to be part of the government,” Vider says.

According to Mazuz, the reason for the split with Shas was because Deri “said a long time ago that we [Shas] are going with Herzog,” referring to Labor’s chairman MK Isaac Herzog.

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