Ultra-Orthodox Parties Likely to Be Part of Netanyahu's Next Coalition

Shas lost about 100,000 votes, but the only number that really matters to Arye Dery is zero: the number of seats won by Yahad.

Yair Ettinger
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Arye Dery celebrating after the elections, March 18, 2015.Credit: Emil Salman
Yair Ettinger

Politics can be magic, it turns out. While a pound of feathers may weigh the same as a pound of lead, the 13 seats the ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism won in Tuesday’s election appear to carry more weight for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu than the 18 seats they won in 2013, when Netanyahu kept them out of the coalition.

For a long time now, Netanyahu has been speaking to and about the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, parties with the longing of a lover for his beloved. He missed them these past two years, and now they can wrap things up for him. Although the coalition negotiations have yet to (officially) begin and the ultra-Orthodox parties have not yet recommended that Netanyahu form the government, it’s not too early to predict that the heads of Shas and UTJ won’t need to drop their pre-election dreams.

That means Shas chairman Arye Dery could be given control of the Interior Ministry, the party’s Yakov Margi or Yitzhak Cohen could be in charge of religious affairs, UTJ’s Yaakov Litzman could get the health portfolio again and another UTJ MK, Moshe Gafni, could head the Knesset Finance Committee. Maybe there will also be a deputy minister for each party. Oh, and no VAT on staple items, like Dery promised. Also, expect demands for a reversal of cuts to child allowances and the yeshiva budgets, a serious revamping of the draft law and cancellation of the conversion reforms.

The magical math has worked its charms on Dery. Sure, Shas lost about 100,000 votes — primarily to Likud and Eli Yishai, the former Shas chairman who broke off from the party to head a new party, Yahad — but the schadenfreude Dery is surely feeling means the only number that really matters to him is zero: the number of Knesset seats won by Yahad.

At some point Dery will have to deal with the fact that Shas is almost as small as it was six elections ago. But the removal of Yishai from the field gives Dery a sense of power that he probably didn’t have back in 1992, and certainly not since he returned to Shas in 2012, after a brief stint in prison for corruption. Dery is in total control of the party’s Council of Torah Sages and he now has a remarkably disciplined faction to work with. Still, in the early 1990s Shas was a growing mass movement, while now it looks more like a party with a narrow base of Sephardi Haredim. Sometimes less is indeed less.

Dery is promising to bring all those voters back and rebuild the movement, but it remains to be seen whether he will succeed.

The bet of the gadol hador

Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, a leader of the so-called Lithuanian (non-Hasidic) ultra-Orthodox community, is considered by many to be the last surviving Haredi gadol, or great sage. While there are those who challenge his leadership, no one of similar stature will succeed him, and Shteinman, who recently celebrated his 101st birthday, may not be around for the next election.

Shteinman is generally regarded as pragmatic and forward-thinking, but he bears responsibility for two failures in this election, even if they were not exclusively his — UTJ’s failure and that of Eli Yishai.

On December 12, Yishai and his wife visited Shteinman’s home, and two days later Yishai announced he was leaving Shas and forming Yahad. As a result, many Haredim, both Sephardi and Ashkenazi, saw the visit as expressing the highest level of support for Yishai and the right-wing Haredi party he founded. Whether this was accurate or not, Shteinman refused to refute that perception during the ensuing three months, although Dery pleaded with him to do so.

In the end, it seems that the rabbi decided to bet on Yahad, perhaps thinking it would be a satellite party of UTJ. Dery may or may not seek revenge, but it’s pretty clear he does not see himself as having an obligation of any sort to Shteinman.

Shteinman also placed a losing bet when he decided to give up on the votes his rival, Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, was taking from UTJ and deny him any influence in the party. Naturally Auerbach himself is also responsible for the rift, but this election tested the assumption that ignoring Auerbach would have no impact on UTJ’s electoral performance. That assumption proved false, as UTJ dropped from seven seats to six.

Shteinman’s supporters are now going to be subject to severe criticism from the party’s Hassidic faction, Agudat Yisrael, which will argue that Shteinman’s Lithuanian faction failed to deliver the goods on Election Day.

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