Netanyahu seeks to keep Haredi UTJ party united, but some prefer he not interfere

With the Degel HaTorah and Agudat Yisrael factions at odds over several issues, the opposition leader is worried they could split and potentially fall below electoral threshold

United Torah Judaism's Moshe Gafni speaks with Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset on November 24, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
United Torah Judaism's Moshe Gafni speaks with Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset on November 24, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Having brokered an agreement for Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit to run together in the November elections, opposition chief Benjamin Netanyahu has launched efforts to ensure Haredi party United Torah Judaism remains united.

Hoping to clinch the 61 Knesset seats that will allow him to return to the prime minister’s seat, Netanyahu is intensely focused on ensuring his right-wing and religious supporters maximize their electoral potential. A split of UTJ, which has won seven seats in most recent elections, could well lead to one of the factions or both falling below the four-seat electoral threshold, potentially thwarting Netanyahu’s bid to return to power.

UTJ is made up of two factions: Hasidic party Agudat Yisrael and the non-Hasidic Degel HaTorah. The parties have run on a joint list since 1992. However, that alliance has recently come under threat amid disagreements between the sides.

One issue is who will lead the party. Gafni took control of UTJ in 2019 from longtime chair Yaakov Litzman of Agudat Yisrael, who resigned from the Knesset as part of a plea deal after he abused his position to thwart the extradition of suspected pedophile Malka Leifer. Agudat Yisrael announced that Yitzhak Goldknopf would take over as leader of the faction.

According to media reports, Gafni is opposed to Goldknopf, who has never served as an MK, leading the combined UTJ slate.

Degel HaTorah is also said to be irate at an agreement by the Belz Hasidim, part of Agudat Yisrael, to allow the study of some secular subjects in their schools in exchange for increased state funding. The spiritual leader of Degel HaTorah, the 99-year-old Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, is fervently against any state involvement in Haredi schooling or the introduction of any secular subjects into boys’ classrooms.

Agudat Yisrael chairman Rabbi Yitzchak Goldknopf at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, July 28, 2022 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Kan news reported Sunday that Netanyahu held a meeting with Agudat Yisrael’s Goldknopf and Moti Babchik in an attempt to bridge the disagreements. But the network also cited an unnamed senior official in UTJ as attacking Netanyahu’s intervention, saying he was “taking sides in an ideological argument he should stay out of.”

A similar sentiment was expressed by an anonymous party source quoted by the Ynet news site, who said officials “very much don’t like Bibi’s interference.”

“These are ideological issues that have nothing to do with him and which he does not understand,” the official said. “This isn’t a political-personal matter of placing on the slate and jobs, but a principled ideological argument.”

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