Jerusalem (Jun. 17)
Tami, the new party put together by Religious Affairs Minister Aharon Abu Hatzeira only a month ago has had a hard time getting off the ground. To win any sort of meaningful representation in the next Knesset it must woo voters away from the entrenched religious-political blocs: the National Religious Party — from which Abu bolted last month — and the Aguda Israel.
Its name, the Hebrew acronym for Tenuah Lemassoret Israel (Movement for Jewish Tradition), is intended to appeal to those voters. But it apparently did not impress the venerable Rabbi Yisrael Abu Hatzeira of Netivot, Aharon’s uncle who has endorsed the Aguda list. This was a severe setback.
The rabbi, known as “Baba Sali”, leader of Moroccan Jews in Israel, is venerated by them as an ascetic and holy man. His followers tell of “miracles” he performed and his spiritual leadership is acknowledged by all Moroccan rabbis in Israel.
By spurning his nephew’s political ambitions, Rabbi Yisrael has dampened Abu ‘s hopes for support from the North African backers of the two major parties-Likud and the Labor Alignment. Public opinion polls taken during the first week of June indicated that Tami could expect no more than 3-4 Knesset seats. Abu and his No. 2 man, former Laborite Aharon Uzan, had expressed confidence they would win twice that number and emerge from the June 30 elections with important bargaining power.
The manner of the Baba Sali’s repudiation was particularly embarassing. Both Abu and Uzan had indicated publicly that their new party was created with his blessings. Indeed, a Tami spokesman at first denied Aguda’s claim to his endorsement. But the rabbi invited television cameramen to his modest home in the Negev town of Netivot to record the act of his signing a pro-Aguda manifesto. His name appears alongside those of other leading rabbis from Israel’s various ethnic communities, both Sephardic and Ashkenazic.
Theoretically, the Tami party would have been expected to benefit from the long standing differences between Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews in the religious and other parties. The Moroccan-born Religious Affairs Minister quit the NRP because, among other things, it allegedly neglected its Sephardic constituents and discriminated against them in the allocations of “safe” spots on its election list.
The Aguda was also beset by such ethnic tensions during the bitter and delicate process of putting together its list of Knesset candidates. The first Sephardic name is that of Rabbi Melamed of Rosh Haayin in the chancey No. 5 spot. His Sephardic supporters had demanded one of the first four “safe” spots. The issue was resolved when the Aguda’s “Council of Sages”, the ultra-Orthodox party’s supreme authority, ruled that Melamed would rotate positions with the No. 4 man midway through the life of the tenth Knesset.
A similar struggle occurred within the NRP where Abu Hatzeira’s defection came as a serious blow. In the view of most political observers, it was no coincidence that the issue came to a head on the day Abu was acquitted by a Jerusalem district court on charges of soliciting and accepting bribes in connection with his ministerial duties. The following day, Abu left the NRP citing “ethnic discrimination” as his reason.
Many observers believe that the spadework for that move began weeks or even months earlier and that Abu and his supporters were simply awaiting the verdict of the court before acting. In fact, since Tami was founded, the press has reported several “plots” by Sephardic politicians in the major parties that allegedly have been brewing for as long as two years. According to those accounts, Tami as finally constituted is but a pale shadow of a grander and bolder concept discussed by Sephardic leaders from Labor, Likud and the NRP over the past two years.
The idea, apparently was to establish one major Sephardic bloc which would have divided the Israeli body politic between Oriental and European Jews. But Tami, as it emerged, is a party of Jews of North African origin, indicating that its organizers had neither the time nor the patience to woo other Sephardic groupings such as the Iraqi Jews and Yemenites. As a result, Tami is perceived to have a narrow, sectarian base which has harmed its image in the election campaign.
Another harmful element is the controversy surrounding the key role played in Tami’s creation and its financial support by the Geneva-based millionaire businessman and philanthropist, Nissim Gaon, president of the World Sephardic Federation. While Gaon has provided financial support to other parties, his generous pledge of cash to Tami was probably the most important factor enabling Abu to make his move.
According to one newspaper, Gaon has already given the new party a quarter million dollars. He is one of several principal contributors to a fund set up by Sephardim around the world to defray the costs of Abu’s recent trial. But Gaon, once a close friend of Premier Menachem Begin, is not a popular figure with Israel’s media. He has been accused of “interference in Israel’s democratic process.” Such hostile comments during the election campaign can hardly benefit Tami.
The ethnic essence of Tami’s platform has also been attacked as an attempt to undo years of efforts to “integrate” Israel’s disparate communities and to foment social and cultural tensions.
Another albatross that hangs heavy on the neck of the new party is the pending second trial of Abu, this time on charges of financial malfeasance as administrator of a charitable institution when he was mayor of Ramle five years ago. The trial will be held after the elections and some pundits believe many voters will by-pass Tami because of the question mark that still hangs over his character.