United Torah Judaism and Shas, the two ultra-Orthodox parties in the 19th Knesset, announced Friday that they would join forces to create a bloc that would oppose universal national service and other potential threats to the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle.
United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni announced the move on Friday afternoon, saying preliminary negotiations were being held to create a bloc that would possess 18 seats in the 19th Knesset, compared to Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid’s 19 seats — making it a viable coalition partner for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Gafni added that while United Torah Judaism was not “rejecting” other parties, its world-view was relatively close to that of Shas, especially with regard to national service for the ultra-Orthodox, public transportation on the Sabbath, and other issues Lapid’s party has pledged to address.
The two parties were set to convene separately and together on Sunday to make a final decision on the matter.
United Torah Judaism was surprisingly successful in Tuesday’s elections, gaining 7 seven seats – two more than it held in the 18th Knesset. There was no change in Shas’s representation, which again amounted to 11 seats.
The final shifts in the elections results make it arithmetically easier for Netanyahu to form a coalition without either of the two ultra-Orthodox parties, should he choose to do so.
Netanyahu, whose 31-seat Likud-Beytenu will be the incoming Knesset’s largest faction, met Thursday to discuss a possible coalition with Lapid, whose new Yesh Atid party, with 19 seats, will be the second largest, and the question of ultra-Orthodox participation was reportedly the focus of part of their lengthy conversation. Lapid would rather keep the ultra-Orthodox Shas out of the government; Netanyahu has reportedly told Shas’s Eli Yishai, and UTJ’s Yaakov Litzman that he wants both of them in.
Shas leaders have said they consider it “unthinkable” that Netanyahu would choose to leave their party out of the coalition. And most analysts believe Netanyahu would be reluctant to break his longtime partnership with the ultra-Orthodox for what might prove to be a shorter-term alliance with other parties. Thus, he would rather have a wider coalition, with both ultra-Orthodox and center-left parties, if he can find the necessary common ground.
Still, Ariel Sharon left Shas out of his 2003 coalition, and a similar process is not impossible. Netanyahu could form a coalition with no ultra-Orthodox parties but with some or all of Yesh Atid, Jewish Home (12 seats), Hatnua (6), Kadima (2) and even Labor (15). Labor’s Shelly Yachimovich said Thursday she would not join a Netanyahu-led coalition, but others in her party — including Nachman Shai, and, reportedly party veteran Benjamin Ben-Eliezer — feel differently.
Meanwhile, Yesh Atid’s Lapid — the newcomer to politics who surprised the nation Tuesday with his 19 seats — stressed Friday that coalition negotiations had yet to begin.
Urging his constituency to be patient, Lapid said that “nobody knows yet what the structure of the next government will be,” adding that he hadn’t entered the political arena merely to gain a ministerial position.
“I haven’t come for a chair, because I already had a chair. We’ve come to make a real difference,” Lapid said.