United Torah Judaism angry at Netanyahu for sending its voters to Smotrich

Though ultra-Orthodox Shas and UTJ are expected to keep their Knesset strength, they had expected a better showing; ‘He walked all over us,’ one MK says of PM

United Torah Judaism leader Moshe Gafni, at the opening event of its election campaign, ahead of the Israeli elections, in Jerusalem, on February 12, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
United Torah Judaism leader Moshe Gafni, at the opening event of its election campaign, ahead of the Israeli elections, in Jerusalem, on February 12, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism are angry at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for bolstering the Religious Zionism faction ahead of Tuesday’s election, according to a Wednesday report.

The two Haredi parties, longtime allies of Netanyahu, believe he deprived them of stronger electoral showings by pushing religious voters to Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism faction.

Although Shas and United Torah Judaism are currently projected to maintain their strength, with 9 and 7 seats respectively, the ultra-Orthodox population’s growth had led them to expect to each gain an additional seat in the election, according to a Ynet report.

The ultra-Orthodox parties believe thousands of their regular voters cast their ballots for Religious Zionism, and blame Netanyahu for aggressively lobbying the religious and ultra-Orthodox community to vote for that party and its leader Smotrich, to ensure it passed the electoral threshold of 3.25% of votes needed to enter the Knesset.

Netanyahu had wanted to maximize the potential of right-wing votes, fearing the loss of a right-wing majority in the Knesset if Religious Zionism failed to pass the electoral threshold.

Religious Zionism has generated controversy due to its inclusion of far-right candidate Itamar Ben Gvir and the anti-LGBT Noam party.

Shas party chief Aryeh Deri speaks at an election rally in Jerusalem on March 11, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

With 89 percent of the vote counted as of Wednesday night, Religious Zionism appeared to have outperformed expectations and was expected to win 6 seats. Even with the party’s strong showing, Netanyahu’s bloc does not appear to have enough seats to form a majority coalition. The premier’s opponents do not have a clear path to a majority either.

Ynet reported that on election night, when it seemed United Torah Judaism would only win six seats, party leader Moshe Gafni blocked calls from Netanyahu, telling associates: “I’m really angry. If I talk to him like this, it won’t end well.”

United Torah Judaism MK Uri Maklev. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

United Torah Judaism MK Uri Maklev told Ynet that Netanyahu “did things that should not be done” during the campaign.

Netanyahu “came into our home… he walked all over us. Came into our pool with a straw and started sucking out water for someone else and spraying it all over the place,” Maklev said.

He called it “a crisis in relations with the prime minister” and said “such things leave an impression for a long time.”

Nevertheless, Maklev said his party would do everything to form a right-wing government led by Netanyahu.

Religious Zionism party chairman Bezalel Smotrich (L) and candidate Itamar Ben Gvir celebrate at the party headquarters in Modi’in on elections night, March 23, 2021. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

Maklev also said he believed a drop in voter turnout was more to blame for the party’s failure to win an eighth seat, rather than Netanyahu’s interference.

Ynet said anger was brewing in Shas as well, though the party was being more careful about publicly airing criticism of the premier.

Throughout three inconclusive elections over the past two years, Netanyahu has relied on the loyalty of the ultra-Orthodox parties, who had refused to consider a coalition not led by him.

But United Torah Judaism’s Gafni said Saturday, ahead of the election, that his party “will weigh” its options if Netanyahu did not secure a majority coalition after the vote.

Non-final results Wednesday showed Netanyahu short of a 61-seat majority. Netanyahu’s Likud was projected to win 30 seats, Shas 9, United Torah Judaism 7, and the Religious Zionism party 6. That would give the pro-Netanyahu bloc a total of just 52 seats, still short of a majority even if Yamina were to join with its 7 seats.

On the other side of the aisle, the parties that have vowed to oppose Netanyahu forming the next coalition have 56 seats.

The Islamist Ra’am party, projected to win 5 seats, has not made a commitment either way.

Gafni said Saturday there is “no meaning” to a loyalty pledge his party signed to Netanyahu last month, but said he still supported the premier and hopes for his victory in the election.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves to his supporters after the first exit poll results for the Israeli parliamentary elections, at his Likud party’s headquarters in Jerusalem, March. 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit, file)

Gafni said that he was allied with Netanyahu’s Likud party because it includes “traditional” voters, not because it is right-wing.

“Being on the right doesn’t play a part for me,” Gafni said. “I’ve been with Netanyahu for many years. I go with him because the traditional public is with Likud. If the traditional public was somewhere else, I would also go somewhere else.”

Ultra-Orthodox parties have long reviled opposition leader Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid party, which has touted secularist policies and opposed ongoing ultra-Orthodox control on many levers of power. However, Gafni recently signaled his party may be less resolutely opposed to Lapid than before.

The ultra-Orthodox parties are also resolutely opposed to the secularist Avigdor Liberman of the right-wing Yisrael Beytenu faction, which is also committed to the anti-Netanyahu bloc.

The Central Elections Committee on Wednesday night began counting some 450,000 absentee ballots, and said it hoped to conclude the tally by Friday morning.

The ballots, cast in special double envelopes, account for some 10 percent of the national vote, and could yet determine whether Netanyahu is able to form a new government, whether his rivals do so, or whether the political gridlock continues and Israel heads for yet another election after four inconclusive rounds.

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