Ultra-Orthodox parties are losing voters — to Netanyahu’s benefit
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Ultra-Orthodox parties are losing voters — to Netanyahu’s benefit

The number of Haredim who won’t be voting for community’s traditional parties is up considerably, and most are right-wing, according to recent surveys

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man near a billboard with pictures of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Shas head Aryeh Deri, as part of the Shas election campaign, in Safed, March 10, 2019. (David Cohen/Flash90)
An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man near a billboard with pictures of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Shas head Aryeh Deri, as part of the Shas election campaign, in Safed, March 10, 2019. (David Cohen/Flash90)

He’s a rabbi in a pot-friendly, quasi-libertarian party; she’s a lawyer from Ramat Beit Shemesh; he’s a Jerusalem-based businessman; she’s a computer programmer-turned social activist. They share little in common in their professed political and ideological views. But all represent a growing trend of ultra-Orthodox political candidates being placed on a spread of non-Haredi party slates ahead of the April 9 elections.

As Israel heads to the polls, political parties have been quietly including ultra-Orthodox candidates on their slates in a bid to gain the support of a growing number of disenchanted voters — perhaps as much as 25 percent of the community — who won’t be voting for the two Haredi parties, United Torah Judaism and Shas, according to recent surveys.

Only two of the candidates — Zehut’s no. 2, Haim Amsalem, a former Shas MK; and Omer Yankelevich, who is listed 23rd on the Blue and White party slate — have a chance of making it into the parliament, according to opinion polls. The others, Likud’s Ze’ev Fleishman (43rd) and Labor’s Michal Zernowitski (20th), fell short of a realistic position in their parties’ respective primaries (though for the former, it marked the first time the governing right-wing party reserved a slot for an ultra-Orthodox candidate).

Other parties, such as Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett’s New Right, have also openly solicited these voters, who could potentially amount to tens of thousands of ballots.

And their departure from the confines of the ultra-Orthodox parties, studies suggest, is wholly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s and other right wing parties’ gain.

An ultra-Orthodox man casts his vote at the Tzfat Likud polling station on February 5, 2019 in the party’s primaries. (David Cohen/Flash90)

According to the Israel Democracy Institute’s Dr. Gilad Malach, traditionally, 5% of the ultra-Orthodox — namely, hardliners and anti-Zionists from groups such as the Eda Haredit — have eschewed voting altogether in the general election. They were followed in recent years by another 6% in the form of the so-called Jerusalem Faction, an extremist non-Zionist sect, which refuses to vote for UTJ over differences with the party leadership.

A third group drifting away from the ultra-Orthodox parties, according to Malach’s analysis, consists of those who no longer view funding for yeshivas as the top issue concerning them, along with those who work and are more integrated than the average Haredi in Israeli life. The latter group stood at 10% of the community in 2006-2015, 17% in 2015, and now makes up 20% ahead of the April vote, according to recent studies, he said.

Most of them are right-wing, noted Malach.

Over half (56%) are Likud supporters, according to a mid-February poll of 675 respondents for the Kav Itonut ultra-Orthodox paper, which offered rare insight on this subgroup. Others (20%) are expected to support more far-right candidates, such as the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit (now part of the Union of Right Wing Parties, though this survey was taken before the merger and before the Supreme Court disqualified candidate Michael Ben Ari), and a small minority will vote for the New Right, Blue and White, and other center or left-wing parties, the survey indicated. (The poll did not detail its methods or provide a margin of error.)

Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (2nd left) attends a conference of the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Israel party in the coastal city of Netanya on January 30, 2019. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

Another poll of 1,364 Haredi respondents — double the sample size — conducted on behalf of the same paper earlier this month found that over one-quarter were not planning to vote for the Haredi parties. Over half (51.3%) said they were planning to vote for UTJ and 23% for Shas, followed by 7.5% for Likud, 5% for Eli Yishai’s Yachad, 3% for the Union of Right Wing Parties, 2.2% for Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut, 2.2% for the New Right, and 5.5% for other parties.

Asked to explain the top issue or motivation driving their vote, an overwhelming majority (75%, matching the votes for the Haredi parties) said it was the instruction of their rabbis; 4.9% said it was based on politicians’ responsiveness to public needs; another 4.9% were motivated by holding on to Greater Israel; 4.7% wanted to uphold the Netanyahu government; 4.5% chose Shabbat observance in the public sphere; and for just 1.3%, the military enlistment law was the key factor.

The disintegration of Shas?

While United Torah Judaism’s standing has remained steady in recent polls, at some seven seats (it currently has six), Aryeh Deri’s Shas has seen a drop, with most polls showing the party receiving 5-6 seats, though some have it even lower, just narrowly clearing the electoral threshold.

It’s a long way from the 17 seats the party received in its glory days of 1999, also under Deri’s leadership. And according to Malach, the decline is largely due to its sizable group of non-Haredi constituents, who are seeking their political fortunes elsewhere.

A worker prints election campaign posters of the Shas political party showing a picture of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and head of the Shas party Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, at Canaan Maxi Media Printing House in central Israel on March 7, 2019. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

“What’s happening is that the Haredi parties are less successful in reaching a broader target audience than in the past,” he said, noting that in previous elections as many as two-thirds of Shas voters were not ultra-Orthodox — down to one third in the last election.

With a strong emphasis on Mizrahi identity and promises of socially friendly economic policies, Shas in the past drew considerable support from traditional Jews of eastern descent. But a general thawing of ethnic tensions in Israel, as well as the formation of similarly minded parties, has changed the political landscape, said Malach. The average Shas voter has more options, such as Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu and Avi Gabbay’s Labor party, and isn’t necessarily going for the protest vote that Shas used to represent, he argued.

Malach predicted that Shas would receive some 5-6 seats, as polls suggest, noting that last time the surveys were consistent and accurately predicted the party’s seven seats.

Who will they support for PM? Netanyahu, almost certainly

In a recent joint statement, the leaders of Shas and United Torah Judaism — longtime political allies of Netanyahu — declared they will recommend to the president that the prime minister be tasked with forming the coalition after the election.

They went on to rule out sitting in any future coalition with secularist Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid party and second-in-command of Blue and White. Yesh Atid advocates military and national service for Haredi youth and injecting a modern curriculum into traditionalist ultra-Orthodox schools.

Moshe Ya’alon, Gabi Ashkenazi, Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid of the Blue and White joint list visit at a shopping center in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod on March 8, 2019. (Flash90)

“We will join, united and together, only a coalition formed by Netanyahu, and will be strong partners at his side. We will not negotiate or discuss joining a coalition that includes Yair Lapid under any circumstances,” Deri and Litzman said.

Hostilities between the ultra-Orthodox and Lapid over his advancement of the IDF enlistment law in the previous Knesset run deep (even Yankelevich, the Haredi attorney and would-be MK in Gantz’s original Israel Resilience party, reportedly said she considered walking away over the merger with Yesh Atid, according to a message obtained by the B’Hadrey Haredim website on March 12).

Currently, surveys indicate that even if the Blue and White party should win the most seats, it would not be able to cobble together a coalition. The centrist politicians would also be hard-pressed to court Deri, due to their party’s strident criticism of Netanyahu over his corruption charges: Police have recommended Deri be indicted for corruption, and he previously served time in prison on bribery charges. Deri has also said he would seek to be interior minister in the next government — the position he currently holds, and the office he held when he took bribes for which he was later jailed — a demand that will likely prove a step too far even for a desperate Gantz.

Lapid and Deri also have a history of bad blood, after the Yesh Atid leader memorably told the formerly imprisoned Shas leader he would “rehabilitate” him in a televised pre-election debate in 2015, in what was later derided by Deri as Ashkenazi “condescension.” Deri on March 12 revived that incident, challenging Lapid to another debate on religion and state issues, “any time and any place that he chooses.”

At the same time, leaders of the Haredi parties, however loyal to Netanyahu, have long been more dovish than their voters.

“I’m not right-wing,” said UTJ MK Moshe Gafni earlier this month, according to the Kikar HaShabat website. “The left would greatly benefit the Haredim,” he added, before stressing that he will not support Gantz and Lapid.

Some observers, however, see political pragmatism winning out.

“The person who sanctified the fight against Lapid is Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman [the leader of UTJ],” wrote Avraham Dov Greenbaum, the editor of the Shas mouthpiece “HaDerech” in a column for another magazine, The Liberal.

“But under the surface, there are other opinions in United Torah Judaism, as in its sister party Shas, that see in Lapid just another politician.”

“In the moment of truth, there is a chance that they will side in favor of a Gantz government, even if Lapid is part of it,” he wrote.

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