Jostling in the Religious Parties

I was going to write Part II of Who Are the Religious in Israel, but Benjamin Netanyahu’s call for early elections has sparked intense speculation about who will ally with whom and which party and bloc will come out on top. And I can’t help participating in these prognostications.

Two new polls are out today, detailing where each party stands. They more or less tell the same story—the rightwing bloc continues to gain more seats in the Knesset than the leftwing bloc. According to a Haaretz/Dialog survey, the former gets 68 seats while the latter gets 52.

A Teleseker/Maariv poll has the right at 64 Knesset seats and the left (or, more properly, the center-left) at 56. Interestingly, the same poll then asks about likely voting based on whether Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni form a new party. Under these conditions, the right wins only 62 mandates while the left gets 58, making the election much closer. It also puts the left in contention for forming the government, though it would require some tricky coalition bargaining with the religious parties.

It is what’s going on in these parties that is interesting. Although today there are three main religious parties/tickets (Shas, United Torah Judaism, and a new-ish National Religious Party), they are internally divided along ideological and personal lines. There are also intense differences over religious identity and norms, and it is a constant effort for each party to remain united.

For a long time there were four or five religious parties: a religious Zionist, a socialist-religious Zionist, a haredi, a socialist haredi, and often a minor breakaway from one of these four. By the mid-1950s these parties were consolidating: both religious Zionist parties became the National Religious Party (Mafdal), while the haredi parties were merging into Agudat Israel—though that didn’t become permanent until 1981, and by the beginning of the 1990s had merged more or less permanently with another haredi party to become United Torah Judaism (UTJ). In 1984 Shas entered the political scene, a breakaway from Agudat Israel that sought to represent haredi Sephardic Jews.

In the current Knesset, Shas holds 11 seats, UTJ has 5, and Mafdal—reincarnated as Jewish Home—has 3.

Shas is divided along personality and individual lines. Though it is still guided by the very old Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the party’s daily business is governed by several managers. The party was initially led by Aryeh Deri, considered a brilliant strategist. He was later convicted of corruption and replaced by Eli Yishai. Where Deri was open to working with others, Yishai is bombastic and has offended many with his seemingly uncompromising positions. Yet since Deri announced his return to politics, speculation has been focused on whether he will form his own party, while there are rumors
he might rejoin Shas. Either way he is a threat to Yishai. We can anticipate friction between them, especially if the secular parties start playing them off one another.

But both Deri and Yishai had joined coalition governments led by left and center-left parties. Given the right amount of incentives, Shas under either leader (or both) could support a Likud-led coalition or a center-left coalition. It remains, as it has since the early 1990s, in the role of kingmaker.

United Torah Judaism is composed of Agudat Israel, a party of Ashkenazi haredim and hasidim, and Degel HaTorah, a party of Ashkenazi haredim but that has problems with hasidism. In 1988, Chabad (a hasidic group) under the direction of its leader Rabbi Menachem Schneerson became involved in Israeli elections to help Agudat. Many groups and rabbinical leaders within Agudat do not think hasidism is an appropriate movement; the involvement of one of the major hasidic sects exacerbated these tensions, highlighting the different spiritual practices and theological ideas. One of Agudat’s long time leaders, Rabbi Eliezer Shach, had long had tense relations with Rabbi Schneerson and his followers. The intervention of Chabad in the election made a break political, and Rabbi Shach created Degel HaTorah as a new party out of Agudat.

Degel HaTorah and Agudat Israel have an on-again, off-again relationship. They combined in time for the 1992 elections, and have struggled to maintain unity since then. Currently at five seats, polls have UTJ staying at five or winning one more, but reports are circulating again about internal differences. The party likely won’t be a significant player in coalition politics, though it’s also likely to be in almost any government that is formed.

Jewish Home is a shadow of its former National Religious Party self. The most prominent religious Zionist party, it served in almost all governments since the establishment of the state. It began to break down in the 1970s, with the emergence of Gush Emunim and a post-1967 commitment to settling the newly-conquered West Bank, Gaza, and Sinai that put the radicalized younger generation at odds with the older one.

By the 2000s most of the party shared an increasingly hardline commitment to settlement in the territories. But the 2005 Gaza disengagement brought internal differences over tactics to the fore, and the party split over the best way to influence Israeli policy. Though it ran on a joint ticket with some smaller secular far right parties in the 2006 election, talks to officially merge into a new party fell apart and the party split again over personalities and tactics: Jewish Home, basically a new version of Mafdal, and National Union, which contains more members from the now-defunct far right secular parties.

Despite internal disputes within Jewish Home, efforts to merge with National Union continue as they had from 2006. Naftali Bennett, a newcomer to party politics, has sought to unite the two parties under his leadership. Bennett is well-connected among the settlers and the rightwing in Israel, and could prove an important force on the political right should he win Jewish Home’s leadership on November 6.

But polls show Jewish Home and National Union together still only getting seven seats, and Bennett is being challenged within Jewish Home by its current chair Daniel Hershkowitz as well as Zevulun Orlev, both of whom are at odds with National Union leader Yaakov Katz. Katz has proclaimed on more than one occasion that Israel would return to Gaza, and though Hershkowitz and Orlev are no softies when it comes to settlements, both are concerned about losing their leadership positions in a party under Naftali and which the larger National Union will probably dominate. At the same time, Katz himself doesn’t have the full support of his party; Arieh Eldad has expressed discontent with both Katz and Bennett. Finally, National Union takes a less compromising position on how to move the settlement enterprise forward than Jewish Home members have.

It’s likely that these three parties will continue on the divided path they’ve been on since the 2000s. Whether they can have an effect on coalition bargaining remains to be seen, but because the possibility exists it’s worth watching to see what they do.

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3 thoughts on “Jostling in the Religious Parties

  1. Pingback: In Thinking about New Israeli-Palestinian Peace Talks | Mideast Matrix

  2. Pingback: Shas after Ovadia Yosef | Mideast Matrix

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