Shas spiritual leader said to nix merger of ultra-Orthodox parties
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Shas spiritual leader said to nix merger of ultra-Orthodox parties

Rabbi Shalom Cohen reportedly says he wants to preserve Shas’s unique identity in serving the Sephardic community

Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Shalom Cohen speaks at a Shas conference in Jerusalem on September 27, 2018. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)
Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Shalom Cohen speaks at a Shas conference in Jerusalem on September 27, 2018. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

The Shas party’s spiritual leader has reportedly put the kibosh on a plan to unite all three of the Knesset’s ultra-Orthodox parties in a combined slate for the coming April elections.

A statement on behalf of Rabbi Shalom Cohen said he “unequivocally objected to the process and said that Shas’s uniqueness lay in advancing the Sephardic public by connecting between those who follow the Torah and the Israeli public,” Channel 13 TV news reported Friday.

The electoral alliance would have included current coalition members Shas and United Torah Judaism, which comprises the Degel Hatorah and Agudat Yisrael parties.

Shas’s electoral base is made up largely of ultra-Orthodox Sephardic Jews of Middle Eastern descent, while Degel Hatorah and Agudat Israel represent Ashkenazi Jews from the Lithuanian and Hasidic communities, respectively.

The unity initiative was supported by a number of rabbis, among them Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, a leader of the Lithuanian community who is considered close to Shas leader Aryeh Deri, the interior minister, Hadashot TV news reported earlier this month.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had also backed the prospective alliance and offered to mediate between the sides, according to the report, with the aim of forming a sturdy right-wing bloc after the April 9 elections.

MKs Yaakov Litzman, Moshe Gafni, Meir Porush and Uri Makleff signing an agreement between Degel Hatorah and Agudat Yisrael to run in the April elections as the United Torah Judaism party, January 16, 2019. (Degel Hatorah)

Once considered a kingmaker in Israeli politics, Shas won 10 Knesset seats or more from 1996 until the 2015 elections, when it dropped to seven following the death of its longtime spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

Recent polls have put Shas at four to five seats, just above the minimum vote threshold needed to enter the Knesset.

United Torah Judaism is expected to win seven seats in the next elections, one more than its current total.

Last week the Degel Hatorah and Agudat Yisrael parties signed an agreement to run together in the elections by reforming the United Torah Judaism faction with, for the first time, an equal number of candidates from each side on the slate.

In the 2015 elections, Agudat Yisrael held 60 percent of UTJ’s electoral list, with Degel Hatorah candidates filling the remaining 40%. In the united Knesset faction of six seats, that worked out to four and two seats, respectively.

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