Shas rally in Tel-Aviv.
(photo credit: JEREMY SHARON)
Shas chairman Arye Deri firmly threw his weight, and that of his party, behind Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and said Shas would be backing him to form the next government.
Speaking to approximately 10,000 Shas supporters, mainly haredi yeshiva students, at the Menorah Mivtachim Arena in Tel Aviv on Tuesday night, Deri said the party’s voters and community favored a Netanyahu-led government.
“We are with you, Benjamin Netanyahu,” declared Deri.
“Our community and your community are brothers. We want you as prime minister, but we want you as Bibi-Begin, not Bibi-Lapid.”
He was referring to former prime minister Menachem Begin, who drew working- class Sephardi voters to the Likud party in the late 1970s, and to Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, who is reviled by the haredi public for cuts he enacted as finance minister to haredi welfare budgets and yeshiva stipends, and for the haredi conscription law he forced through the Knesset.
“We have here a massive community, faithful and dedicated Jews who live here in the Land of Israel, and you have harmed this community in the last two years,” Deri said in reference to the outgoing government’s measures.
The Shas leader’s backing for Netanyahu could severely damage any chance for the Zionist Union to form a government since a Center-Left block would require the 14-16 Knesset seats that Shas and the Ashkenazi haredi party United Torah Judaism are expected to take in the coming election.
As yet, however, UTJ has not committed to Netanyahu.
The other central address at the Shas gathering was given by the party’s acerbic and strict spiritual guide, Rabbi Shalom Cohen, who, as is his wont, spoke out harshly against political enemies, referencing – although not mentioning by name – former Shas chairman Eli Yishai, who left to form his own Yahad party.
“Whoever does not vote for Shas, Maran will not forgive him,” Cohen said, using the Hebrew honorific “master” for Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the party’s legendary spiritual leader, who died in 2013.
“This is even worse now that he resides in the world above.
Someone who is considering perverting his opinions is a wretch,” Cohen stated in clear reference to Yishai. “He should be stoned! They are confused people!” The event seemed designed largely to bolster Deri’s prominence and leadership after the upheavals in Shas over the past few months.
Deri was received like a rock star by the crowd, which roared its enthusiasm and adulation for the wily politician, who did a victory lap of the arena floor as he entered, urging the crowd to sing, dance and jump with even greater fervor.
The reception given the fierce and surly Cohen was a noticeably less enthusiastic and a great deal less warm, with members of the audience looking rather non-plussed by the rabbi, who is supposed to be the ultimate arbiter of Shas policy, a job-description that is, however, to all intents and purposes filled by Deri.
Shas’s election campaign has largely concentrated on appealing to the Israeli working class, in particular those from the Sephardi community, for whom Deri is much better known than Cohen, who has worked almost all his life as a teacher and dean at the Porat Yosef yeshiva in Jerusalem.
Cohen’s relative lack of star appeal to the non-haredi sector whose votes Shas seeks was highlighted by the images of Yosef festooning the arena, with one giant banner above the dais saying “Continuing in his [Yosef’s] path.”
Most symbolic of all was the ornate wooden chair that belonged to Yosef, which was placed at the front, now empty but for the ceremonial robe and headdress of the revered rabbi.
Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog said Deri’s statement about backing Netanyahu should not be taken too seriously.
“Oy vavoy, I didn’t sleep all night,” Herzog told Army Radio when asked about Deri’s statement. “Declarations on coalitions of candidates before elections should be viewed with caution.”
Coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin (Likud) declined to comment.Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.