The ultra-Orthodox Are the New Israeli Right

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Shas leader Arye Dery at a party campaign, July 22, 2019.

As Election Day nears, calls are growing in the center-left camp to explore the possibility of forming a future coalition with the Haredim. These calls rest on the premise that the Haredim are not part of the right-wing bloc, but rather a group with goals and desires of its own that would be prepared to join any Israeli government. There is some historic precedent for this assumption – Shas joined the second Rabin government in 1992, and Shas and United Torah Judaism joined the Barak government in 1999.  

But 20 years on, such aspirations from the center-left should be seen as naïve at best and foolish at worst. Tomer Persico explained in a recent piece (Haaretz, July 5) why the Haredim prefer the right over the left. His main argument is that “the Haredi parties are Likud’s ‘natural partners’ not because of their attitude toward the Land of Israel, but because of a shared fondness for tradition.”

But Persico’s thesis is incomplete and fails to take into account changes that have occurred in Haredi society, as well as in-depth analyses from recent years concerning the Haredim’s positions on issues of foreign affairs and security. The myth of the dovish Haredi parties rests largely upon the rulings of the two great ultra-Orthodox rabbis, Rabbi Elazar Shach and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who said it was permissible to return territory and evacuate settlements in return for peace. The stature and prestige of these two figures influenced not only ministers and MKs in the Haredi parties, but also their voters, who voted in accordance with their rulings.

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However, the passing of Rabbi Schach in 2001 and of Rabbi Yosef 12 years later created a void, some might even say a crisis, in Haredi society. This leadership vacuum has led to greater political independence among members of Haredi society. Many Haredim now do not blindly heed a rabbi’s orders when they come to the polling booth.

The Haredim do still vote for the Haredi parties, but a substantial number give their votes to the right not because the Union of Right Wing Parties or the Likud are espousing more conservative positions or have a more sympathetic attitude toward religion than do the center-left parties, as Persico theorized. That was always true, and in this sense nothing has changed. The explanation for these voting patterns is their right-wing positions regarding any negotiations with the Palestinians and the application of Israeli sovereignty in Judea and Samaria.

An in-depth study published in April 2019 by the Israel Democracy Institute found that the positions of supporters of the Haredi parties on matters of foreign affairs and security are even more hawkish than those of right-wing parties like Likud and Hayamin Hehadash.

Additionally, the study found that 68 percent of UTJ supporters advocate the application of Israeli sovereignty in the territories, a rate similar to that of Hayamin Hehadash and Likud voters. Other studies by Professor Tamar Herman show that the rate of Haredi support for the positions of the political right are nearly identical to the rate of support from national-religious voters.

In other words, in the absence of a moderate rabbinic leadership like that of Rabbi Shach and Rabbi Yosef, the Haredi public is not hesitant to express its right-wing positions on diplomatic issues. Also, Chabad has consistently been identified with the right, too. For these reasons, the expectation or secret hope of Kahol Lavan to form a government with the Haredim could only be realistic if the right does not obtain a blocking majority, not because the Haredim don’t solidly favor the political right on issues related to Greater Israel.

Dr. Elbaz teaches political science and communications at Tel Aviv University.

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