The race for the Chief Rabbinate continued its loopy path this week, as speculation emerged that Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, chief rabbi of Ramat Gan and a former candidate for the position of Ashkenazi chief rabbi, is now in the lead to be the national-religious candidate for the job.

According to a report in Israel Hayom, senior national-religious Rabbi Haim Druckman is formulating a plan to present Ariel as the consensus candidate of the community.

Ariel is a leading figure in the national-religious world and is well respected by some in the haredi community, and, as such, may be more likely than any other national-religious candidate to receive broad support from the electoral body.

Druckman told Israel Hayom that Ariel “is fitting” for the chief rabbi’s post and that he was strongly optimistic that he would be the agreed-upon candidate.

But Ariel himself has yet to say whether or not he intends to run, and told Israel Hayom that he first heard about his possible candidacy in media reports.

In addition, a political source told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday that it was very unlikely the rabbi would run for election.

Rabbi David Stav, a leading national-religious candidate for the chief rabbi position and chairman of the Tzohar rabbinical association, is widely loathed by the haredi leadership.

Stav is also not well-liked by more conservative elements of his national-religious movement.

Any national-religious candidate faces a struggle to be elected, as the 150-person electoral body – comprised of chief municipal rabbis, mayors and national political figures – has a large number of haredi members, including as many as 40 members loyal to the haredi Shas party.

The same political source heavily criticized Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett for failing to endorse Stav as the consensus national-religious candidate, blaming him for the political games surrounding the race for Ashkenazi chief rabbi.

“There is unified support from so many religious and secular parties who support Rabbi Stav,” said the source. “Why is Naftali Bennett dragging his feet instead of leading the revolution for a more Zionist, inclusive rabbinate. This is not what he promised his voters.”

There are significant obstacles, however, standing in the way of Ariel’s candidacy, most notably that a candidate must be below the age of 70 to stand for election. Ariel is 79. Legislation could be passed to change this law, but such a move may complicate matters further.

It is understood that should such a law be passed, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, the serving chief rabbi of Tel Aviv and former Ashkenazi chief rabbi, would run for the position once again, thereby endangering the Ariel’s chances as the national-religious candidate.

Furthermore, Stav has already been endorsed by the Yisrael Beytenu, Yesh Atid and Labor parties, making it difficult to pass the legislation needed to change maximum age of candidates.

The Tzohar national-religious rabbinical association, of which Ariel is president, insists that Stav is not running as a candidate of the national-religious political movement but as a consensus candidate for Israeli society as a whole.

A source with ties to the national-religious rabbinic leadership said on Wednesday that those opposed to Stav could view electing Ariel – given his prominent position in the Tzohar organization – as letting Stav in through the back door.

According to sources in Bayit Yehudi, the party will accept Druckman’s recommendation for the national-religious candidate.

Deputy Minister for Religious Services Eli Ben- Dahan of Bayit Yehudi is working and coordinating with Druckman on the issue.

Speculation was rife in March that Shas and Bayit Yehudi would arrive at a political deal whereby Bayit Yehudi would advance and pass legislation to allow for a chief rabbi to serve two 10-year terms, thereby allowing current Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar to stand for election again.

In return, Shas would support the candidacy of the consensus national-religious candidate.

It is understood that Amar met with Druckman earlier this week. A source within Bayit Yehudi said that for a deal along these lines to be actualized, Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef would first need to publicly support the national- religious candidate.

Without such a statement, the source suggested, the party would be extremely hesitant to pass legislation paving the way for Amar to stand for reelection, given the fact that the election of the chief rabbis by the electoral body is done by secret ballot.

During the election campaign for the recently established government, Yosef spoke out harshly against Bayit Yehudi for the party’s stance on religious issues, calling them “the house of non-Jews.”

Sources in Tzohar said that the chances of getting Ariel elected were slim and that his candidacy could serve to pave the way for a haredi candidate to be elected as Ashkenazi chief rabbi.

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