Shas denies Gaydamak will steal Sephardi votes

"Shas is not a party that was created overnight," says MK Ya'acov Margi, who has helped organize Shas election campaigns for over two decades.

Arkadi Gaydamak 88 (photo credit: )
Arkadi Gaydamak 88
(photo credit: )
Billionaire Arkadi Gaydamak's Social Justice Party might be aiming to build itself by luring away Shas's constituency, but historic ties to the Sephardi haredi party and loyalty to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef will overcome in the end, said Shas MKs and activists on Monday. "Shas is not a party that was created overnight," said MK Ya'acov Margi, 47, a Beersheba resident who has helped organize Shas election campaigns for over two decades. "We are in contact with our people daily and we are involved not just on the national level. We are on the streets, in the neighborhoods and in the municipalities. "We don't rely on media gimmicks or other PR tricks for our votes, we rely on many years of hard work. We are the real thing, not some cheap substitute." Margi downplayed reports that Nissim Yishai, Shas Chairman Eli Yishai's brother and a leading candidate to become the mayor of Netivot, was negotiating to leave Shas for Social Justice. "Nissim had an innocent meeting with Gaydamak's people and they blew the whole thing completely out of proportion," he said. David Narodetsky, Social Justice's legal advisor, said that there were still issues that needed to be settled before Yishai could join Social Justice. "I want to know that he is truly on our side," said Narodetsky. "And it is difficult to imagine Nissim running against his brother. But I think there are mutual interests. We could definitely help him with the big Russian vote in Netivot." Nevertheless, Narodetsky denied that Social Justice was targeting Shas's constituency. Last week, Gaydamak's Social Justice Party announced it would be running in dozens of local government elections. After building itself up on the local level the party is expected to run in the national election at the end of 2008. Gaydamak, who is pushing a platform that emphasizes nothing but socioeconomic issues, is expected to focus on poorer voters who have in the past supported Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu. But Shas may also lose voters to Gaydamak. The Sephardi haredi party has historically relied for its electoral success on a large swathe of poorer Sephardi voters who are traditional in their religious practice but who do not necessarily identify with the party's religious conservatism. A senior member of Social Justice rejected the claim that Sephardi voters would be turned off at the prospect of voting for a secular, Ashkenazi Russian. "He is not identified by the public as Russian. People respect the fact that he is a self-made man from humble beginnings who is now a sensitive philanthropist," said the source. News media gave extensive coverage to Gaydamak's "meet and greet" forays into towns such as Or Akiva, Netanya and Tiberias, where many typical Shas voters sang out "Arkadi - King of Israel." The Russian billionaire's extensive philanthropic activities have also benefited Shas institutions. For instance, during his well-publicized trip to Or Akiva, he contributed NIS 1 million to rebuild the playground of a Shas-affiliated yeshiva. A recent caricature that appeared in the daily Ha'aretz depicting Gaydamak handing Shas's spiritual mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef a large check infuriated Shas MKs. On Army Radio, Religious Affairs Minister Yitzhak Cohen demanded that cartoonist Ofer Biderman apologize to the party. Meanwhile, Biderman warned Cohen that Shas would lose votes to Gaydamak. Social Justice is backing candidates that were once affiliated with Shas. For instance, Sinai Amir, a former Aryeh Deri supporter, is running on a Social Justice ticket in Netanya. In Nahariya, Ofer Elkayam, who in the past was loosely tied to Shas, is also running for Gaydamak's party. "Gaydamak is definitely targeting Shas voters," said a Shas source. "He is looking for the support of people living in development towns with low income. "But I think the damage will be minimal. Shas voters feel connected to our institutions. The ties are strong. "Still, you can't discount the mesmerizing affect that a man with so much money has on people. Thank God, I have not had to resist the temptation that a man like Gaydamak can create," the source said.