Elections 2009 / Shas Feeling Hot Breath of Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu

In last-minute counteroffensive, Shas' spiritual leader says vote for Lieberman 'gives power to devil.'

Internal polls by Shas show that the ultra-Orthodox party is losing ground to its competitors on the right - Likud and especially Yisrael Beiteinu. Shas officials are concerned that the Sephardi party might win only nine or 10 seats in the next Knesset, a decline from its current 12. The opinion polls in the weekend papers show similar results.

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On Saturday night, Shas' spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, told supporters that a vote for Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman was "giving power to the devil" and that voting for the party that approved "shops that sell pork and civil marriage" was "utterly prohibited."

A Shas source said that while "there are good responses from the grassroots to the rabbi's statements," as things look now, "Lieberman's and Bibi's [Benjamin Netanyahu's] growing power is nibbling away at us." The source said the party was particularly concerned that the change in the balance of power deprived Shas of some of its status as the "swing vote" in coalition making.

Shas received around 300,000 votes in the previous election, mostly from voters who were not ultra-Orthodox. Calls to tens of thousands of voters from Shas campaign headquarters have revealed that many of their voters are now leaning toward Lieberman.

A number of Shas lawmakers, headed by cabinet ministers Eli Yishai and Ariel Atias, headed south on Sunday to change as many minds as possible in their traditional strongholds, Be'er Sheva and other southern communities.