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Shas backers elated as exit polls predict strong showing for both party and bloc

Supporters erupt in excitement after final surveys indicate ultra-Orthodox faction won 9 seats, right-wing bloc strengthened, while rival Liberman weakened

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Shas supporters explode in excitement upon watching the exit polls on March 2, 2020. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)
Shas supporters explode in excitement upon watching the exit polls on March 2, 2020. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

Hundreds of Shas supporters erupted in excitement Monday night at the party’s Jerusalem headquarters, as they watched the release of TV exit polls that predicted a strong showing for their ultra-Orthodox, Mizrahi party in the elections and large gains for their right-wing, religious bloc, putting it on the cusp of victory.

Shas earned nine seats, according to exit polls from Channel 12, Channel 13 and the Kan public broadcaster, maintaining the strong presence in the Knesset that it won in the previous September election.

Even before chants for their party’s chairman, Aryeh Deri, the crowd cheered “Bibi, Bibi, Bibi!” elated over the strong performance exit polls showed for Netanyahu, whose Likud party was seen winning 36-37 seats — a significant bump from the 32 it won in September.

The excitement in the party’s headquarters spiked when Channel 12 announced that Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu’s party, which campaigned aggressively against the Haredi factions, was only expected to receive six seats. The Shas supporters chanted, “Avigdor, go home!”

“Blessed are You, who has granted us life, sustained us and enabled us to reach this occasion,” said Deri at the opening of his remarks in front of hundreds of his supporters.

“Tomorrow, we right wing faction heads will sit with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and fulfill the will of the nation and immediately establish a coalition,” he said. “This is what the nation decided today and overwhelmingly so.”

Similar to the previous two elections, Shas campaigned on being a loyal coalition partner to Likud, plastering ads across the country with Deri’s photo alongside Netanyahu’s with the slogan “Aryeh needs a strong Bibi” — a step further than the ultra-Orthodox party had gone ahead of the September vote, when the party line had been “Bibi needs a strong Aryeh.”

It was Deri who engineered the 55-member bloc of right-wing, religious parties along with Likud, United Torah Judaism, and Yamina that substantially crippled Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz’s ability to form a coalition after the previous election.

Blue and White held coalition negotiations of varying degrees with just about all members of the 55-MK bloc, but none of the factions agreed to peel away from their right-wing, religious colleagues. With Gantz unwilling to form a minority government reliant on support of the majority-Arab Joint List from the opposition, he was forced to return the government-forming mandate to President Reuven Rivlin in a move that ultimately sparked Monday’s election.

Even before the parliamentary vote, Deri convinced the leaders of the Likud satellite, religious parties — Yamina and United Torah Judaism — to once again put their signatures on a document pledging to back Netanyahu for premier in the upcoming coalition negotiations.

Shas party chairman Interior Minister Aryeh Deri casts his ballot at a voting station in Jerusalem on March 2, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In addition to vowing loyalty to Netanyahu and the right-wing bloc, ruling out joining a coalition with Blue and White early on in its campaign, Shas also campaigned on safeguarding the country’s traditional Jewish character. While much of this message was reflected through what were seen as largely positive campaign ads about the importance of a Jewish lifestyle, the party also went negative in the final days ahead of the vote, with Deri warning the public that a victory for the left-wing bloc would lead to religious Jews being afraid to walk in Israel’s streets with a yarmulke on their heads.

“These polls show that the country was no less than saved,” said 23-year-old Shas supporter Rami Hemed as the party theme song blasted in the background.

Asked if he was concerned over whether the right-wing bloc would manage to pull away at least one MK from the center-left camp if exit polls showing the former would be one seat shy of a 61-seat majority in Knesset, Hemed was dismissive. “Just like Bibi pulled away [Gadi Yekarvan] from Blue and White, he’ll be able to do that again this time.”

A spokesman for the party said Deri would address the event later in the evening.

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