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Unity of Orthodox Bloc Seen As Harming Labor’s Fortunes

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The starting gun for Israel’s election campaign sounded at midnight Tuesday, the deadline for filing party lists with the Central Elections Committee.

But as the race, which has been heating up for the past month, got officially under way, last-minute developments, not entirely unexpected, seemed to bode ill for the Labor Party’s chances of forming the next government — even though it is currently well ahead of Likud in the polls.

Given the inexorable splintering that results from Israel’s system of proportional representation, either major party must form a coalition with smaller factions to govern or to prevent its rival from forming a governing coalition in the 120-member parliament.

According to seasoned observers, an 11th-hour agreement among the haredi, or strictly Orthodox, parties to join forces for the June 23 elections, and the Arab parties’ failure to reach a similar agreement, diminished Labor’s ability to form a “peace coalition.”

Three separate parties will compete for the Arab vote, which theoretically could exceed 300,000. The largest is the Hadash Communists, a nominally mixed Arab-Jewish party that is overwhelmingly Arab in practice. It is led by the mayor of Nazareth, Tawfik Zayyad, and holds four seats in the outgoing Knesset.

But the Communists traditionally have been ignored by both the left and the right in the coalition-forming process.

The Progressive List For Peace, another ostensibly Jewish-Arab mix but virtually all Arab, is headed by Mohammed Miari, who is its sole representative in the Knesset.

The rival Arab Democratic Party, led by former Labor Party member Abd-el Wahab Darousha, is also a one-man faction. Personal animosity between Miari and Darousha defeated all efforts to form a joint list.

PERETZ CHANGES HIS MIND

Their disunity may result in the elimination of both parties from the next Knesset since the threshold for a single seat has been raised from 1 to 1.5 percent of the total vote cast. In that case, tens of thousands of Arab votes will have been wasted.

Labor still could muster the 60 Knesset mandates needed to prevent Likud from forming a coalition with the religious and right-wing parties. But it would find it harder to induce the haredi parties to join it in forming a government.

After weeks of haggling, the Hasidic Agudat Yisrael and the Mitnagged Degel HaTorah parties agreed late Tuesday to file a joint election list.

They were joined by another haredi figure, Absorption Minister Yitzhak Peretz, who had second thoughts after announcing his retirement from politics last week.

Peretz, an independent member of the present Knesset, alarmed the haredi camp last month when he said he would head a new party called Moriah.

He abandoned that idea two weeks later, only to revive it Tuesday as the filing deadline approached. But Moriah will run jointly with the Agudah-Degel coalition, not in opposition to it.

Peretz is a hawk who broke with the Sephardic haredi Shas party in 1990 when its spiritual leader, former Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, tried to lead it into a coalition with Labor.

The Agudah, for its part, has vowed never to join a Labor-led government. While Degel’s spiritual mentor, Rabbi Eliezer Schach, has expressed dovish sentiments in the past, he has attacked Laborites, especially kibbutzniks, for their secular lifestyle.

SHAS MENTOR LOSING INFLUENCE

Labor’s chances of winning support from Shas received a blow when the party filed its list Tuesday. The ranking of names indicates that the dovish Rabbi Yosef has lost influence. Yosef Azran and Rafael Pinhasi, Knesset members who rebelled against him in 1990, appeared in safe spots and are likely to retain their seats.

The former chief rabbi therefore cannot be counted on to deliver Shas to the Labor camp.

According to observers, these circumstances point to one feasible outcome: another Labor-Likud unity government such as governed Israel from 1984 to 1990.

To many Israelis, that spells paralysis in both foreign and domestic affairs, since neither major party is capable of taking a policy initiative opposed by the other.

But there is a ray of hope for Labor. The haredim fear a unity regime more than any other because they would be left out.

Should Labor muster enough votes to block a Likud-led coalition on the right, the religious parties might swallow their ideological objections and align with Labor to get a seat in the Cabinet and the prestige and patronage that goes with it.

All in all, a total of 30 political parties registered to run in the June 23 elections.

The haredi parties submitted their lists just minutes before the deadline. Shas, led by Aryeh Deri, arrived at 11:30 p.m., with Eliezer Mizrahi’s Geulat Yisrael list hot on its heels. Members of the combined Agudat Yisrael-Degel HaTorah list swept in at 11:45.

Moshe Levinger’s Torah Ve’eretz Party came in just under the wire, as did Medinat Hayehudim, led by Robert and Rachel Manning, who are awaiting extradition to the United States on murder charges.

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