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The Israeli Elections This Time, the Balance of Power May Not Rest with Orthodox Alone

June 22, 1992
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After the 1988 elections and again after the fall of the Labor-Likud unity government in 1990, a wave of indignation swept much of Israel at the spectacle of “aged rabbis” dictating the composition and policies of the government.

In part, this reaction reflected deep-seated resentment felt toward the haredim, or ultra-Orthodox, especially over the touchy issue of military service deferments for yeshiva students.

But there was also a genuine feeling that something was basically flawed in Israel’s democracy if, at the end of the day, it was essentially the undemocratic haredi parties, where decisions are made not by votes but by rabbinical fiat, that held the balance of power.

While that criticism was valid enough, it tended to ignore that the haredim’s power stemmed then, and still stems now, not from any nefarious conspiracy but rather from the fact that among the smaller parties, only the Orthodox ones were genuinely “in the middle” between the Big Two, Labor and Likud.

The haredim, in other words, represented the only real “swing vote” in Israeli party politics. All other factions voted into the 12th Knesset were committed to supporting either Labor or Likud.

In 1992, this is still very much the case in regard to the haredim, especially in regard to the Sephardic Orthodox party Shas. While the party has cast its fortunes with Likud of late, its spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, is a political dove who has long wanted to side with Labor.

But what might be a new and complicating element in next week’s elections is the possible emergence of more “swing vote” parties, that is, parties that have not pledged allegiance in advance to either Labor or Likud.

Many of the new parties running June 23 are not aligned to either of the Big Two. But probably only two or three of them at most can be said to have any real chance of making it past the 1.5 percent of the vote threshold required to win a Knesset seat. They include:

THE NEW LIBERAL PARTY. Led by Finance Minister Yitzhak Modai and Herzliya Mayor Eli Landau, this party has begun to show up in the polls recently. And, with vast amounts of cash in its coffers, the party is making a massive publicity surge as the finishing line approaches.

The platform focuses almost exclusively on economics, with Modai and Landau urging a national referendum on the land-for-peace issue. They have made it clear that they are prepared to go into a coalition with either side, provided the terms are right.

YAD B’YAD. This party of pensioners, immigrants and senior citizens is also ready to team up with either side. It is led by former diplomat Abba Geffen, who ran in 1988 as a pensioners party and almost won a Knesset seat. Now, teamed up with Soviet immigrant groups, he may have a chance of squeezing in.

If these two parties do, in fact, make it and especially if they make it with two seats each– as will most parties that cross the 1.5 percent threshold — they will become the natural targets of all the wooing and blandishments that the Big Two lavished on the Orthodox parties last time around.

HATIKVAH. This is a third small party with a chance of making it. It teams up veteran Knesset member Charlie Biton, a leftist former Black Panther, with religious women’s activist Leah Shakdiel. While the party has not made the opinion polls yet, its activists are canvassing energetically among immigrants and low-income Israelis.

Meanwhile, the haredim have streamlined from three to two parties, with Agudat Yisrael and Degel HaTorah now running on one list. They have also sharpened the differences between them, as evidenced by Ashkenazic sage Rabbi Eliezer Schach’s sharp attack on “Sephardic religious leaders who are not mature enough to lead.”

The two haredi parties running are:

THE UNITED TORAH JUDAISM PARTY. It comprises the two rival Ashkenazic groups, Agudat Yisrael and Degel HaTorah, plus Rabbi Yitzhak Peretz, the current absorption minister, who broke away from Shas in 1990.

The combined party is unlikely to achieve the eight seats Agudah and Degel together hold in the present Knesset. Agudah won five last time, thanks to energetic campaigning on its behalf by the Chabad movement of Lubavitcher Hasidim, which was at odds with Schach of Degel HaTorah.

Pundits predict a net loss of three or even four seats. While this would represent a certain loss of influence in a new government, the party would still be a force to reckon with in the coalition-building process, where every vote may count.

SHAS. The Sephardic party is dubbed “the big enigma” by pundits, who are wary of opinion polls when it comes to estimating trends among the haredim.

It is unclear, for instance, whether the ongoing police investigation of alleged fiscal mismanagement by Interior Minister Arye Deri and other Shas officials will help or hinder the party.

In its election propaganda, Shas projects itself as the victim of anti-Sephardic prejudice. The fact that after nearly two years, no charges have been brought against Deri speaks in its favor.

Shas won five seats last time and was a whisker away from a sixth. Any slippage now is bound to be interpreted as the beginning of the waning of this most successful Israeli ethnic party to date.

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