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Meeting Between Religious Leaders Signals a Political Union for June

April 9, 1992
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A “summit meeting” held Wednesday between the two paramount spiritual leaders of the Agudat Yisrael and Degel HaTorah political parties has sharply increased prospects for an eventual union between the two haredi parties for the June 23 elections.

Rabbi Eliezer Schach, 94, head of the Ponevezh Yeshiva and founder of Degel, called on the Hasidic rebbe of Vishnitz, Rabbi Moshe Yehoshua Hager, 75, in what observers interpreted as a significant gesture of reconciliation.

Hager is chairman of Agudat Yisrael’s Council of Torah Sages. Schach led the non-Hasidic elements out of Agudah in 1988 to found his own party, Degel, with its own separate Council of Torah Sages.

So-called “peace talks” have been proceeding desultorily between teams of the two parties for the past several weeks. But a major obstacle to progress has been disagreement over the composition of a united party list.

Degel demands parity; Agudah proposes that results of the 1988 elections, when it won five seats in the Knesset and Degel two, serve as the criterion for composing a united list.

There is disagreement over a merger of the two Councils of Sages. Degel says Agudah has co-opted rabbis onto its council who are not truly sages.

The talks began in the wake of new legislation passed at the turn of the year which raised the threshold for Knesset seat eligibility from 1 percent to 1.5 percent of the total vote a party needs to win.

In other words, a party will need to win more than 40,000 votes countrywide in order to get its first seat in the Knesset. Among Degel members, there have been fears that this hurdle might be too high for the party to clear.


But Degel was wary of making peace with Agudah, for fear that the Chabad Lubavitch movement, an archenemy of Schach, might form its own party, and siphon off Hasidic voters from the proposed united list.

This week, however, a close aide to the Lubavitcher rebbe announced in Jerusalem that Lubavitch would stay out of the Israeli elections. Yosef Gutnik, an Australian mining millionaire who is Rebbe Menachem Schneerson’s top political emissary, said Chabad’s involvement in the 1988 elections, on the side of Agudah, was a one-time departure from the movement’s tradition of staying out of party politics.

Gutnik’s statement has relieved Degel of its fears and suspicions regarding the possibility of a new Chabad-Hasidic list.

By the same token, Schach recently made it clear that he would not support the creation of a new Sephardic haredi party, in addition to Shas.

Rumors had been rife in haredi circles that Absorption Minister Yitzhak Peretz had Schach’s blessing to form a new party — and that pro-Schach Ashkenazi votes would support it if Agudah and Degel agreed to merge. These rumors created fears and suspicion on the Agudah side of the “peace talks.”

Now, these, too, have abated — hence, the new vigor in the “peace overtures” between Degel and Agudah.

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