Against All Odds, the ultra-Orthodox Won Big in Israel's Election

Yisrael Cohen
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Yaakov Litzman (L), UTJ, Arye Dery (C), Shas, Benjamin Netanyahu (R), Likud, at the Knesset, Jerusalem, November 18, 2019
Yaakov Litzman (L), UTJ, Arye Dery (C), Shas, Benjamin Netanyahu (R), Likud, at the Knesset, Jerusalem, November 18, 2019 Credit: Emil Salman
Yisrael Cohen

Likud ministers spent their Saturday night making their way one after the other to the house on Balfour Street. Some were trembling for their jobs, and some were literally pleading to keep their standing or avoid a demotion. In contrast, the heads of the ultra-Orthodox parties – Arye Dery, Yaakov Litzman and Moshe Gafni – were sitting at home all calm and relaxed, preparing to get to work. They already had received everything they wanted and had gone away satisfied long before the negotiations within the ruling party even began. If anyone can flash a giant victory sign after three exhausting elections, it’s the Haredi legislators. And theirs is a dual victory: ideologically, they preserved the principles that matter to their supporters, and politically, they not only maintained their standing but also improved their positions.

Over a year ago, Yisrael Beitenu chairman Avigdor Lieberman led Israel to an election that turned out to be just round one of 2019 when he refused to compromise on the wording of the draft law that was agreed to by the prime minister and the Haredi parties. Lieberman’s election campaign focused on division and incitement against the Haredi public, as he sought to delegitimize a million Israelis in one of the harshest campaigns of this type ever seen in Israel. In his telling, the Haredim embodied all that is bad, detrimental and despicable in Israel. His supporters enthusiastically embraced his extreme dogma. When the votes were counted, Lieberman became the new kingmaker of Israeli politics, the one who could singlehandedly determine the fate of the coalition. Since then, Israel was dragged into two further rounds of voting, with Lieberman still appearing to wield key control.

The war of the minds – both hidden and out in the open – was essentially waged between two virtuosos of Israeli politics and former fast friends: Lieberman and Shas chairman Dery. However, it still seemed most of the time like Lieberman would have the last word. The man who had referred to the Arab legislators as enemies of Israel agreed to collaborate with the Joint List, if that’s what it would take to send the detested Dery and United Torah Judaism’s Litzman into the opposition.

Then, just as Lieberman’s dream was about to come true, his fortunes abruptly changed when a government of unity and reconciliation was formed. Dery won, big-time. Lieberman ended up in the opposition. The politician who promised he wouldn’t sit with the deluded messianists and who would never join forces with Ahmed Tibi and Ayman Odeh to form a coalition, found himself together with them on the opposition benches.

Ostensibly, the ultra-Orthodox parties carry less weight in the unity government since they no longer hold the power to tip the scales as they would have had in a narrow right-wing government. However, in terms of the final result, their power has clearly been magnified.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a situation assessment meeting with Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (R) regarding the novel coronavirus, at the Health Ministry in Tel Aviv, Israel February 23, 2020.
PM Benjamin Netanyahu holds a situation assessment meeting with Health Minister Yaakov Litzman abut the coronavirus, Feb. 23, 2020Credit: POOL/ REUTERS

Dery, Litzman and Gafni now hold the positions that are of key relevance to the economic facets of Israeli society: Dery as minister of both interior and the development of the Negev and the Galilee; Litzman as minister of housing and Gafni as chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee. The coalition agreement maintains the status quo on matters of religion and state – the issues of fundamental importance to the Haredi community, and promises that no legislation will be passed that would be detrimental to the standing of the yeshiva students. The Haredim managed to avoid the formation of a minority government, in which they would have been hounded and would have paid a high price.

In the clash of the titans over the past year between Lieberman and Lapid on the one hand and Deri, Litzman and Gafni on the other, the latter came out on top by a mile.