Ultra-Orthodox factions reunite in ‘equal’ United Torah Judaism
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Ultra-Orthodox factions reunite in ‘equal’ United Torah Judaism

After ‘procedural’ breakup, Degel Hatorah and Agudat Yisrael sign new pact splitting the slate evenly for first time

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

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)
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)

A week after officially splitting in what they called a “procedural” move, the ultra-Orthodox Degel Hatorah and Agudat Yisrael factions signed an agreement Wednesday to run together in the April elections as the United Torah Judaism party with, for the first time, an equal number of candidates from each side on the slate.

Speaking at modest signing ceremony at the Knesset, Degel Hatorah chairman MK Moshe Gafni said that “unprecedented historic agreement” would assure “equality” between the two factions.

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 party of six seats, that worked out to four and two seats, respectively.

But the two Haredi factions went head-to-head in the local elections in October, backing different candidates in various cities in campaigns that frequently turned acrimonious. Surprising many in the ultra-Orthodox community, Degel Hatorah vastly outperformed Agudat Yisrael, winning almost double the number of municipal seats nationwide and spurring some in the Lithuanin faction to call to change the ratio between the two parties on the national unified list.

Agudat Yisrael chairman Yaakov Litzman and Degel Hatorah chair Moshe Gafni signing an agreement to run in the April elections as the United Torah Judaism party, January 16, 2019. (Degel Hatorah)

According to Wednesday’s agreement, the two factions will represented equally on the party list with Agudat Yisrael taking the odd numbered spots and Degel Hatorah the evens. Under the arrangement, Litzman would remain the official head of the party.

Agudat Yisrael and UTJ chair, Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, said that the party is now “approaching these elections in full unity and with joint forces.”

He said that he was “certain that the move will lead to a significant increase in electoral strength.”

Last week, UTJ said that in accordance with an agreement made before the previous election, its two separate factions would formally split to allow them to receive their state election funds separately instead of jointly.

In addition to the new unity deal, recent reports claim that UTJ is also in talks with the Shas ultra-Orthodox party — whose electoral base is made up largely of ultra-Orthodox Jews of Middle Eastern, or Sephardic, descent — about a possible merger.

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri (R) with United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni at the Knesset on November 7, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The initiative is reportedly being supported by a number of rabbis, among them Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, a leader of the Lithuanian community who is considered close to Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, who leads Shas.

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

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 seats 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.

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