The Israeli election on Tuesday that ended in a stalemate, with any of the two major blocs shy of a majority, left ultra-Orthodox parties with a major dilemma moving ahead.
While Arye Dery’s Shas is continuing to stick with Benjamin Netanyahu, in United Torah Judaism the situation is more complicated. Agudat Yisrael, which represents the Hasidic wing of the party, said on Monday it would back Netanyahu either way, as Degel Hatorah, which represents the Lithuanian stream, is focusing on averting another election – even if it would mean endorsing a different candidate for prime minister.
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“Serious talks are happening among the Haredim, (Gideon) Sa’ar, (Naftali) Bennett and (Bezalel) Smotrich,” says one knowledgeable source, referring to the leaders of the right-wing parties New Hope, Yamina and Religious Zionism. He adds that it is still hard to know how far the Haredi parties will be willing to go, and that the odds of a fifth election remain very high.
For now, UTJ still supports Netanyahu, but a lot of anger at the prime minister has been building up. “We still haven’t decided what to do, but there is thinking and talk – just preliminary – about changing the political line, about looking into other options,” says one Degel Hatorah official. He says his party wants to go back to being the kingmaker in politics. “We see it’s not good for us to be in a situation where we’re in Netanyahu’s pocket.”
Party officials say that during the last Knesset there were rocky relations between Netanyahu and the Haredi parties, when they were thwarted from promoting various issues in the ministries they ran. The straw that broke the camel’s back was what Netanyahu did in the election campaign. “He played with us and plowed into the Haredi public to drum up support for Likud and Smotrich too.”
The sources said that there are ongoing contacts between his party and Sa’ar’s people. “During the campaign, too, there were open channels of dialogue and coordination between the sides,” he says.
Party officials say they’ve decided to examine all the options that could avert another election. “We’ll recommend Netanyahu first but if he fails we won’t go to elections at any price. And if tomorrow morning there’s a possible coalition of 61 with Bennett and Sa’ar and we get everything we want, it’s not certain that we’ll give Netanyahu the mandate.”
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An official from Agudat Yisrael confirmed this scenario. If a Haredi-right-center bloc – made up of Lapid, Bennett, Sa’ar, Kahol Lavan’s Benny Gantz and the Haredim – had more than 60 seats, there would be a real possibility of forming such a coalition, but right now, with this group holding just 60 seats, things are much more complex. “This scenario could only happen if Netanyahu is unable to form a government. Then the real pressure will begin,” the official says. “Until Netanyahu exhausts his attempts, I don’t see anyone here or in Shas making a move against him.
“If we get to a fifth election or a government without Netanyahu, we’ll start to hear people singing new tunes, and that includes (Shas leader Arye) Dery,” the official says. He puts the odds of a fifth election at 50:50. “There’s a lot of anger at Netanyahu. He fought hard for Smotrich among the Haredi public. He’s supposed to be our partner. Instead of culling voters from our public he should have been campaigning among Bennett’s public.”
The two sources in UTJ think that when the moment of truth arrives, when the possibilities are either a fifth election or a coalition without Netanyahu, Dery will join with UTJ to prevent another election. “Our problem right now is Dery, but as soon as the right-Haredi bloc comes apart, it’s a whole new game. We think Dery will ultimately come with us. He knows about this move.”
A Shas official begs to differ, however. “There’s no reason to break with Netanyahu,” he says. “The Haredi parties are the least concerned about another election. The distance to a coalition without Netanyahu is a lot greater than it is to a coalition with Netanyahu I don’t see Dery breaking with Netanyahu.”
This official thinks another election is very likely but will only happen if significant changes are made in the current interim government. “I think they’ll go to a fifth election, but they’ll have to change something fist – pass a law to abolish parity and establish a temporary government with Bennett joining, pass whatever needs to be passed with UAL abstaining.” He says that this could avert another election if a centrist party folds and enters the government. “In any case, there is no chance of a government headed by a party from the change bloc.”