Haredi parties signal ardent alliance with Netanyahu no longer a given

UTJ and Shas have stuck by Likud for the last five years, but as political winds shift, they are letting other parties know that their loyalty may be up for grabs

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

An ultra-Orthodox man walks near an election campaign poster showing Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on April 2, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
An ultra-Orthodox man walks near an election campaign poster showing Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on April 2, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel’s election campaign is well underway, and Likud is already hard at work trying to disrupt the efforts of its most potent and dangerous challenger in the coming race, Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope party.

On Monday, the latest attempt to do so — a vote in the Knesset House Committee to strip campaign financing benefits from Sa’ar-supporting Likud MK Yifat Shasha-Biton — fell apart.

Ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, normally Likud’s closest and most reliable allies, were nowhere to be found, and without their support, the attempt was doomed.

Over the last five years, the Likud party has seen several friendships and alliances dissolve. Yisrael Beytenu, once thought a lock to back Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is now solidly in the anti-Netanyahu camp. Yamina, which signed a “loyalty pledge” to Netanyahu, joined the opposition earlier this year. Now Likud itself is being riven by Sa’ar.

Through it all, Shas and UTJ have remained loyally by Netanyahu’s side.

MK Yifat Shasha-Biton, left, and MK Yaakov Litzman, right, at the handover ceremony after Litzman returned to the post of minister of housing and construction, held at the Housing and Construction Ministry headquarters in Jerusalem on May 18 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

But by abandoning the party in its bid against Shasha-Biton on Monday, the Haredi parties appeared to be signaling that those days are over, and those old loyalties are now up for negotiation.

Free agency

Yated Ne’eman is the most-read print newspaper in the Haredi community on weekdays. It’s affiliated with the Degel Hatorah party, one of the two parties that make up the UTJ alliance.

In a Friday interview with the paper, Degel Hatorah chairman MK Moshe Gafni offered a surprisingly downbeat assessment of the current Israeli leadership.

United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni at a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset on March 3, 2020, a day after the general elections. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“We’re at the height of the coronavirus crisis. In Israel and all over the world, the sickness is spreading. Businesses are on the verge of collapse. We need a functioning leadership here. Instead, we’re going to elections,” he said. “Our leadership is bankrupt.”

It was a surprisingly blunt criticism of a government Gafni has supported every step of the way.

Then he dropped his bombshell, in full view of the Haredi public, though unnoticed by the rest of Israel.

“We know how Netanyahu handles things, and how [Yamina leader Naftali] Bennett and Sa’ar handle things. Can I tell you that one of them is ideal for us? No,” he said.

“At the instruction of the Torah sages [the party’s rabbinic leaders], we’ve always run on an independent list separate from all these groups, so we can make our own calculations about what’s right for us.”

UTJ, Gafni was informing his constituents, now sees itself as a free agent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, with Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, second left, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, second right, Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, right, and United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni, left, during a meeting of the heads of right-wing parties on March 4, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

And what of UTJ’s Sephardi counterpart Shas, which has campaigned over the past two years on the idea that leader Aryeh Deri would be Netanyahu’s wingman?

Netanyahu will be happy to learn that Deri, in a separate newspaper interview on Friday, vowed to stick by Likud: “If Sa’ar thinks we will leave Netanyahu for him, he’s wrong,” Deri affirmed. “The famous bloc hasn’t spoken its final word.”

It’s a comforting thought for Netanyahu, only slightly marred by what might be implied by the fact that Deri felt the need to make such a declaration. The ground has already shifted.

A Haredi-secular coalition?

Conventional wisdom holds that the Haredi parties are far more likely to go with Netanyahu than with his opponents, and for a simple reason: any anti-Netanyahu coalition must depend on secularist parties directly opposed to the Haredi parties’ fundamental policies.

Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman tours the Hacarmel Market in Tel Aviv on November 23, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The possible anti-Netanyahu coalition that now dogs Likud’s every campaign calculation is composed of the religious-Zionist party Yamina, secularist Russian-speaking Yisrael Beytenu, centrists Yesh Atid and Blue and White, the new Israelis party led by Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai – and, of course, Sa’ar’s New Hope.

A Sunday poll by Channel 12 news gave that alliance the narrowest of majorities at 61 seats (Yamina 12, Yesh Atid 14, Huldai 7, Yisrael Beytenu 6, Blue and White 4, New Hope 18). One fewer seat, and it would need to either turn to far-left Meretz or the Arab Joint List — alienating Yamina and Yisrael Beytenu.

Seemingly just as vexing would be an appeal to the Haredi parties. Both Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beytenu demand national service from the Haredi community, a relaxation of religious laws, and the weakening of the state rabbinate — all of them lines in the sand for Shas and UTJ.

But that’s where Sa’ar comes into the picture and upsets the conventional rules, as Likud learned to its dismay on Monday when Shas and UTJ torpedoed the bid to cut Sa’ar’s campaign funds.

After the vote fell apart, Sa’ar lashed Likud for trying to squeeze the ultra-Orthodox parties to join it in a vote to deny MK Shasha-Biton campaign funding as she heads to Sa’ar’s party.

“The aggressive pressure by Likud on the representatives of the Haredi parties to vote against MK Dr. Yifat Shasha-Biton in a pseudo-legal process, as if this were a coalition issue, is another red line that’s been crossed,” he said in a statement.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset in Jerusalem, December 22, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Old friends

Sa’ar is superficially secular but has exhibited a longstanding and close affinity to the Haredi world.

In January 2017, one of the leaders of the Israeli Haredi community, the philosopher and educator Rabbi Moshe Shapira, passed away at age 81. Sa’ar posted a tweet mourning his passing and revealed that he had been a regular student of the aging sage, visiting his Pit’hei Olam yeshiva in Jerusalem every Monday afternoon for a hevruta, or one-on-one study, focused on the Talmud and the works of Maimonides.

Rabbi Shapira “in his wisdom guided me on a journey into the deep treasures of our people,” he said in an interview with the Behadrey Haredim website at the time. “The thoughts and questions that came up in the hevruta always went with me in the days that followed.”

It was no mere political stunt. The lessons were not discussed publicly, and took place even when Sa’ar served as a busy senior cabinet minister.

Haredi men attend the funeral of Rabbi Moshe Shapira in Jerusalem on January 8, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The personal and the political are often intertwined. By his own admission over the years, Sa’ar’s personal connection to the Haredi sage spurred him to develop closer ties with the Haredi factions in the Knesset.

Then, too, there’s the new deputy chairman of Sa’ar’s New Hope party, ex-Likud MK and minister Ze’ev Elkin (full disclosure). Elkin is likely to be placed in charge of Sa’ar’s coalition negotiations after the March 23 elections.

Elkin, too, has the advantage of having already negotiated the formation of a secularist-Haredi coalition when he helped lead Netanyahu’s coalition talks after the 2009 election. That government, one of the few in recent decades to last a full four years, managed to bring together both the Haredi parties and Yisrael Beytenu. The parties would again sit together in the Netanyahu-led coalition from 2015 to 2018.

MK Gideon Sa’ar meets with Haredi supporters after the release of exit poll results of the general election, at Likud party headquarters in Tel Aviv on March 2, 2020. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Yesh Atid, on the other hand, has never been in government with the Haredi parties, though Elkin seemingly believes New Hope can play matchmaker there as well — if it means ending Netanyahu’s long rule.

“A government led by Gideon Sa’ar will know how to connect Liberman, Lapid and the Haredim,” he told radio station 93 FM on Monday. “Based on the status quo, without changing anything that already exists, you can easily remove Netanyahu from the game.”

New options

Haredi politicians are beginning to broadcast disaffection with Netanyahu, or at the very least a new openness to exploring their options.

The message has been received loudly by the other campaigns now gearing up for the election race, including on the left.

On Thursday, former Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelah, in a press conference in Tel Aviv announcing his run in a separate party, promised he would “restore the cooperation between our camp and the Haredim.”

And on Sunday, just two days before officially announcing he was forming his own new party, Tel Aviv Mayor Huldai signed a coalition agreement with Shas on the Tel Aviv City Council, bringing the Haredi faction into the city administration, granting it a deputy mayor post, and agreeing not to allow the expansion of commerce on Shabbat in the city.

MK Ofer Shelah holds a press conference in Tel Aviv on December 24, 2020, announcing the establishment of a new party. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The sense that the Haredim are in play has created an appetite for their support throughout the political system. Though they have been loyal to Netanyahu of late, the parties have historically been comfortable in both right- and left-led governments.

Quiet conversations with Haredi politicians of late reveal that they would still prefer a simpler, more monolithically right-wing government led by Netanyahu — and dependent on them — than any complicated six-way coalition alongside secularists. The former is a recipe for a repeat of the enormous influence they enjoyed in the outgoing government, the latter a path to uncomfortable compromises.

Deri’s insistence that he intends to cling to the old Likud-Haredi bloc should not be read as an indication of Shas’s post-election loyalties – while Shas won’t leap first, it will likely abandon Netanyahu as soon as the parliamentary math requires it. Rather it is a sign of Deri’s hopes from the election. Deri, and yes, Gafni too, still want Netanyahu to win.

But they’re no longer sure he can. The new openness to Sa’ar, Bennett, and even Huldai is a hedge against a post-election Netanyahu who lacks the parliamentary numbers to stay in the prime minister’s chair.

Illustrative: A meeting of the Knesset House Committee, February 4, 2020. (Adina Veldman/Knesset)

Likud’s bid to handicap Sa’ar’s campaign on Monday by a procedural move against Shasha-Biton was a hail-Mary from the start. As Knesset legal advisers explained to the committee, the technical demands of the law appear to favor Sa’ar in that particular fight. So it wasn’t a significant blow when the attempt failed.

But Likud nevertheless suffered a dramatic setback in that meeting. It was the first time since Sa’ar’s split from the party on December 8 that Likud put its Haredi allies’ loyalty to the test. Neither UTJ nor Shas, both of which have a representative on the committee, was willing to openly side with Likud against Sa’ar.

The danger for Netanyahu now lies in the strange way political narratives have of becoming self-fulfilling. The sense that Netanyahu could lose the race is driving a realignment in which even his staunchest allies are beginning to imagine political arrangements in which he is no longer around.

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