Deal Over Final Makeup of UTJ List to Go Down to the Wire

As always, the final agreement on the makeup of United Torah Judaism's Knesset list will not be reached until the last minute, according to officials in the party's Hasidic Agudath Israel and Lithuanian Degel Hatorah factions.

The negotiations on the party's Knesset list have been taking place for six weeks, through open and secret channels, and the power struggles among the various sects involved continue to play a role in ultra-Orthodox politicking.

Nonetheless, sources said this week that the candidates representing the Ashkenazi Hasidic and Lithuanian factions will end up with the same, or virtually the same, Knesset list they have had for the past two parliamentary terms.

MK Yaakov Litzman, who represents the Gur Hasidim for Agudath Israel, is expected to head the list, followed by Degel Hatorah Chairman MK Avraham Ravitz, MK Meir Porush (who represents the small Hasidic sects), MK Moshe Gafni (Degel Hatorah) and MK Shmuel Halpert (who represents the Vishnitz Hasidim). These are the same five MKs who represented UTJ in the outgoing 16th Knesset.

The party split up into its component factions at the beginning of last year after a dispute over joining the government and struggles of prestige between the Hasidic and Lithuanian leaders. Polls now predict that UTJ will win between five and seven seats in the 17th Knesset.

The main bone of contention is the sixth seat. Agudath Israel wants it to go to journalist Yisrael Eichler, the representative of the rabbi of the Belz Hasidim, while Degel Hatorah wants its own representative to take that spot. On the instruction of Lithuanian leaders Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv and Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman, Degel Hatorah will renew its alliance with Agudath Israel only if it gets equal representation on the Knesset list. Agudath Israel had been insisting that the balance of power in its favor be maintained, but then both sides softened up and decided that the sixth candidate will actually be two people.

If UTJ wins six seats, the factions decided, then Eichler will serve as MK for the first half of the year, after which he will be replaced by Degel Hatorah's third candidate, Uri Maklev. Maklev will have the seventh spot on the joint list.

The problem is that Belz Hasidim - at the instruction of their rabbi, Yissachar Dov Rokeach - refuse to be the "peace sacrifice" between the two factions. To protest the compromise, Eichler boycotted a faction meant to include representatives of all sects. Eichler arrived angry at another meeting and announced his refusal to sign an agreement that includes the rotation compromise.

Belz, the second-largest Hasidic sect after the Gur sect, has already conceded half a year of representation: In the outgoing Knesset, Eichler was replaced mid-year by Halpert, the Vishnitz representative. Rokeach associates are threatening that the Belz rabbi wouldn't hesitate to order his followers to quit Agudath Israel, as he has already done in the past.

In such a case, say Belz Hasidim, Rokeach could even order his followers to vote for Shas. Nonetheless, even Belz Hasidim are predicting that by midnight tonight, the deadline for submitting the Knesset list, they will have reached an agreement.