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Haredi faction gives tepid support to Netanyahu, appears to keep options open

UTJ’s Degel HaTorah says it’s making every effort to avoid 5th election and to form coalition with ‘the right-wing and traditional bloc,’ but doesn’t explicitly endorse Likud chief

United Torah Judaism leader MK Moshe Gafni at a conference in Jerusalem on March 7, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
United Torah Judaism leader MK Moshe Gafni at a conference in Jerusalem on March 7, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A faction of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party on Tuesday offered tepid support for Likud leader Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seemingly leaving open the door to joining a government not led by the incumbent premier.

Degel HaTorah, which represents the non-Hasidic “Lithuanian” branch of Ashkenazi Haredi Judaism, has been a stalwart element of Netanyahu’s right-wing religious bloc during the four elections over the past two years. However, the faction has appeared to cool to Netanyahu since the March 23 vote, and is reportedly angry at the premier for bolstering the far-right Religious Zionism party ahead of the elections.

“We are making every effort so we do not go to a fifth election campaign,” Degel HaTorah said in a statement, warning that another round of voting would be a “disaster” and fuel instability.

The faction said it was also making every effort to assemble a coalition with “the right-wing and traditional bloc,” but did not explicitly call for Netanyahu to be tasked with forming a new government. It added that it would give Degel HaTorah’s religious leaders a “full situation report” and accept their instructions on how to proceed.

“At the faction meeting, the members praised the prime minister and thanked the blessed Holy One for the vaccines that work,” Degel HaTorah said.

The statement came after the Kan public broadcaster reported that Netanyahu contacted Degel HaTorah chief Moshe Gafni on Sunday and asked for his full backing, but Gafni replied that he needed “time to think.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center), Interior Minister Aryeh Deri (right) and then-health minister Yaakov Litzman (left) attend a conference in Lod on November 20, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

MK Yaakov Litzman, who heads UTJ’s Hasidic Agudat Yisrael faction, said Monday the party backs Netanyahu as prime minister, noting its pre-election pledges. Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, whose Shas party represents Sephardic ultra-Orthodox Jews, has also reiterated his party’s commitment to only join a government led by Netanyahu.

Days before the elections, Gafni said his party “will weigh” its options if Netanyahu did not secure a majority coalition after the vote.

UTJ and Shas, respectively, won seven and nine seats in last week’s vote, matching their totals in the general election last March.

Neither the pro- nor anti-Netanyahu blocs have a clear path to forming a majority coalition after the most recent election. However, the prospect of a fifth election has spurred speculation that unlikely bedfellows could come together in an effort to oust Netanyahu or, alternatively, to enable him to retain power.

If Degal HaTorah were to break with Netanyahu, it is not clear with whom it would be willing to partner.

Prominent Haredi Rabbis Chaim Kanievsky and Gershon Edelstein at a meeting of the Degel Hatorah faction’s Council of Torah Sages in Bnei Brak, December 4, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Ultra-Orthodox parties have long reviled opposition leader Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid party, which has touted secularist policies and opposed ongoing ultra-Orthodox control over many levers of power. However, Gafni recently signaled his party may be less resolutely opposed to Lapid than before.

The ultra-Orthodox parties are also bitter rivals of Avigdor Liberman and his secularist, right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party, which is also committed to the anti-Netanyahu bloc.

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