A Political Constant

Since the upheavals of 1999, ultra-Orthodox politics have been very stable, and in the coming elections, it seems that there will be nothing new under the sun.

The last time there were upheavals in ultra-Orthodox politics was in 1999. Before the elections, Agudat Yisrael's strong man of the last 20 years, Yaakov Litzman, decided to move from behind the scenes out into the open and head the party's Knesset list. In those elections, Shas won 17 mandates thanks to Aryeh Deri's "He's innocent" campaign, and after the elections were over, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef pushed the innocent Aryeh Deri out as Shas party leader.

Since then, ultra-Orthodox politics have been very stable, and in the coming elections, it seems that there will be nothing new under the sun. It is like they have been very fond of saying in Shas of late: "We're not kadima or ahora" - kadima, the name of Sharon's new party, means forward, and ahora means backward. There are still two months to go, surprises are still possible and nevertheless, the forecast seems pretty clear: Shas will not collapse, Deri will not come back, United Torah Judaism will not split up, and no broad coalition of the religious will emerge. To this list, one other more cautious prediction may be added: the chairman of the Knesset's Finance Committee, Yaakov Litzman, will find a loophole in the Gur hassidim's rules and will not resign.

Most of these predictable decisions will be made, as is the practice among ultra-Orthodox rabbis and activists, only at the last minute, just days (or perhaps minutes) before the party slates must be submitted. Why at the last minute? The rabbis decide on the removal of MKs at the last minute in order to prevent pressures that may thwart it. Activists decide to accept compromises between factions only at the last minute, when they understand there is no other choice.

A question of bargaining

What surprise may yet happen? Shas has a tendency to start its election campaign very low in the polls and gain ground as the elections get closer. Usually, right before the elections, the polls underestimate its ability, perhaps because Shas' constituency does not like the media and perhaps because they are afraid to say how they will vote. The latest polls give Shas, four months before the elections, around 10 mandates. A Mina Tzemach poll published yesterday in Yedioth Ahronoth gave it 11, the same number it has in the current Knesset. Beneath all the usual reservations, it should be noted that if this trend continues, Shas is likely to gain several mandates and reap the most gains from the demise of the Likud.

But the truth is, just as Shas learned during the last term, the election results do not make much difference. Bargaining skills do. In 2003, Shas won a respectable 11 mandates but remained in the opposition for the entire term, a situation that Rabbi Ovadia Yosef never imagined even in his worst nightmares. This time Shas is determined to return to the government, but it wants to do so as the party that tips the balance and not as a minor partner. In other words, the party is less interested in winning seats than it is in Sharon and Peretz not winning 61 seats between them.

`They don't want me'

The moment Shas chairman Aryeh Deri was ousted from the party leadership in the summer of 1999 was the moment that the Israeli media created the is-Deri-coming-back genre of news reports. The answer was always the same: Deri is not coming back to Shas because Rabbi Ovadia Yosef does not want him; Deri is not forming a new party nor is he joining another party, because he is afraid of the ire of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Deri believes that he went to jail because he angered the leader of Degel Hatorah, Rabbi Menachem Eliezer Shach (because of Rabbi Shach's "strictness" or severity) and does not want to get entangled with Rabbi Yosef's "strictness."

These facts have not changed. In an interview last week with Yossi Elituv of the ultra-Orthodox newspaper Mishpacha, Deri said: "I tried to get close to Shas. They don't want me." A question remains: Will Rabbi Yosef, despite this insult, compel Deri to present Shas with a letter of support, as in the previous election?

If Deri does not come back, then perhaps at least Pinchasi? On Tuesday, a source told me that the secretary of the Shas Council of Torah Sages, Rafael Pinchasi, has finished the period during which he was legally barred from running for the Knesset following a false accounting conviction. He will be included in the party slate, the source said. An excellent story, but Pinchasi quickly dampened the enthusiasm. "Even if they give me a million dollars, I'm not coming back," he said.

Benizri is staying

Due to the relatively large number of criminal cases involving Shas faction members, the question that greets every election campaign is what will happen with the suspected/indicted. This time the people referred to are former minister Shlomo Benizri and former faction chair Yair Peretz. Shas party chairman Eli Yishai did indeed announce a rule barring indicted MKs from appearing on the list, but he clarified that the rule will only take effect during the next Knesset term. The reason for the delay, he says, is that "one cannot punish without first warning." The idea is to make it clear to MKs in the next term that if they commit a crime, they will not get any backing.

In the meantime, Shas is making it clear that Benizri and Peretz are in totally different situations. In other words: Benizri is in, Peretz is apparently out. The official explanation is that Peretz has already admitted to and been convicted of fraudulently obtaining an academic degree. Benizri, on the other hand, has not yet been indicted on the most serious charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. The real reasons for the predictable favoritism: Benizri is a senior party member, a member of the leadership and very closely identified with the party. Shas will do nothing that would create the appearance of incriminating him. Peretz is much easier to dump.

The last time there was upheaval in the Shas slate was in 1996, when the party switched from being one with a focus on rabbis (Moshe Maya, Arieh Gamliel, Joseph Azran) to a slate with a focus on activists (Eliyahu Suissa, Eli Yishai, Yitzhak Cohen, David Azoulay, and others). Since then the Shas slate has been selected based on whoever is next in line. When someone leaves, everyone else moves up. Nevertheless, in these elections, the parties have started bringing down some of their stars. What about Shas? One star whose downfall is very likely is Ariel Attias, the director of Shas kashrut supervision network Badatz Beit Yosef. Attias is very close to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and therefore his expected entry into the party slate is considered a threat of sorts to Eli Yishai's standing. The possibility of promoting Elad Mayor Zvika Cohen to the Knesset slate has been mentioned, but this seems unlikely only a year after he won in the municipal elections.

Disagreement pays off

Before every election campaign, the idea of a united religious front crops up again. This time the idea is to have a united front headed by Aryeh Deri. It will not happen. True, politicians are always happy to praise unity, but they know very well that in elections, division and disagreement are worth much more. Shas' leaders know very well that as much as their voters are antagonistic toward the secular Ashkenazim from North Tel Aviv, they cannot tolerate the ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazim of northern Jerusalem. Running with the Ashkenazim may cost Shas many votes. That is the main reason why no united religious front has been formed over the last 20 years. That is why no religious front will emerge in these elections, where the ethnic vote has a tempting alternative to Shas, in the form of Amir Peretz.

The sixth term

In the 1980s, the late admor (hassidic court rabbi) of Gur, Rabbi Simcha Bunim Alter, ruled that every MK must leave the Knesset after two terms. His son is the current admor, and therefore the rotation principle is sacred among Gur followers. However, the rotation principle also specifies eight years. Due to early elections, Litzman has indeed served two terms in the Knesset, but only for seven years. A similar situation enabled the late Avraham Shapira to serve a third term as an MK. The early elections may also save Litzman.

A source close to Litzman relates that two weeks ago he went to see the admor of Gur and asked to resign. In other words, he asked the admor to move forward his decision on whether to instruct him to stay. In the meantime, he has yet to receive an answer. What is clear is that regardless whether Litzman continues in the Knesset, he will continue to function as Agudat Yisrael's strong man, just as he was before the elections. The anonymous MK who would replace him would basically be a puppet.

In the recent elections, there was nothing more stable in Israeli politics than the number of mandates United Torah Judaism won. The biggest surprise the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox party could register is an increase from five mandates to six, and then instead of Meir Porush and Israel Eichler splitting the term under a rotation agreement, both of them will serve the whole term. It is a little hard to remember that Degel Hatorah was established, among other reasons, to revitalize the ranks of ultra-Orthodox activists. The party's two eternal MKs, Avraham Ravitz and Moshe Gafni, are now running for their sixth terms confident and refreshed.

There are two reasons why even though the Knesset's United Torah Judaism faction split into Agudat Yisrael and Degel Hatorah, there is no chance the two will run separately. One reason is the raising of the minimum threshold to 2 percent, which places in doubt the ability of each of those parties to run for the Knesset separately.

The second reason is that the ultra-Orthodox constantly recall the trauma of the split in 1988 and the terrible and violent dispute that broke out. Not one of them is willing to return to those days. Until the inevitable agreement on running together is worked out, Agudat Yisrael is asking Degel Hatorah for an apology and Degel Hatorah is asking Agudat Yisrael for total equality in the Knesset slate. They can always ask.