Shas set to profit from UTJ, right-wing splits

Shas stands to gain electoral power as both the modern Orthodox and Ashkenazi haredi right-wing parties remain wracked by infighting, haredi political sources said Wednesday. Degel Hatorah and Agudat Yisrael, the two parties making up the United Torah Judaism list, have still not decided whether they will run together or separately. In fact, the sides have not even begun serious negotiations, sources close to the parties said. "Everything is still up in the air," said Yossi Elituv, a senior reporter for the haredi weekly Mishpacha. "Degel and Agudah are acting like an old couple who are sick of living together," he said. Ya'acov Eichler, a veteran haredi journalist who provides political commentary for the Knesset Channel (99), said the chances of a split were "50/50." The main factor expected to prevent Degel and Agudah from running on separate lists for the Knesset is the real danger that one or both might not muster enough votes to hurdle the electoral threshold. In the last elections in 2006, UTJ received 147,091 votes, or 4.7 percent of the total. With the threshold at 2%, running as two lists would be risky. In addition, many haredi voters are disenchanted with the UTJ in the wake of November's municipal elections. In Jerusalem, haredi activists backed by the Gur Hassidic sect helped torpedo the mayoral campaign of Meir Porush, a UTJ member of Knesset from Agudah. In other cities, such as Beit Shemesh, members of Agudat Yisrael supported non-haredi candidates against haredi ones. The result was disillusionment and a feeling that personal political interests were being given priority over general haredi interests. In recent days different camps within Degel Hatorah have fought over who will be in the party's No. 3 slot - Modi'in Illit Mayor Ya'acov Guterman, or Menahem Carmel, a Bnei Brak businessman. Both Elituv and Eichler agreed that Shas was poised to gain from the infighting between the two Ashkenazi haredi political parties. "A lot of haredi voters who normally vote for UTJ will vote for Shas because they are sick of all the fighting," Eichler said. Degel Hatorah, Agudat Yisrael and Shas represent three distinct haredi communities. Degel, which ran only once as an individual list, in 1988, was created by Rabbi Elazar Menahem Man Shach to represented the Lithuanian yeshiva world. After Degel's defection, Agudat Yisrael became a party that represented the Hassidic sects of Israel - Gur, Belz, Viznitz and others. Shas, which ran for the first time in 1984, was created by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in response to discrimination in the haredi community against Sephardim. In subsequent elections, Shas expanded its electoral base beyond Sephardi haredim to include less stringently adherent Sephardi voters who identified with Shas's message of ethnic equality. Shas has also gradually succeeded in garnering support from the right-wing. This trend strengthened especially after 2005's Gaza disengagement, when Shas was the only right-leaning party that was not in the government coalition during the stages leading up to the withdrawal. As a result, Shas, unlike the National Union and the National Religious Party, was not "sullied" in the eyes of right-wing voters. For religious Zionists, Shas also had the advantage of being headed by Yosef, a former chief rabbi of Israel. In the 2006 elections, Rabbi Tzvi Tau, head of Jerusalem's religious Zionist Har Hamor Yeshiva, reportedly told his students to vote for Shas. Tau, considered one of the spiritual leaders of the haredi-nationalist (hardal) camp within religious Zionism, has strong influence that extends beyond his yeshiva. Shas is aware of this electoral potential. Last week, Shas Chairman Eli Yishai announced that he would work to help provide funding for Talmud Torah or elementary schools that belong to religious Zionist communities. In an open letter to "the residents of Judea, Samaria and Gaza," Yishai cited Shas's opposition to the disengagement and his work with families evacuated from Gush Katif. Shas is also likely to capitalize on the split in the religious right-wing. Several parties are vying for the religious Zionist vote. Habayit Hayehudi, a new list which was supposed to replace the NRP and the NU, has failed to create unity. The candidates list, which is dominated by more moderate candidates from the NRP, failed to win the confidence of the more hard-line right-wing. Arye Eldad's nonreligious Hatikva party is expected to incorporate members of the NU. Baruch Marzel's Eretz Yisrael Shelanu party will also compete for the right-wing vote. Meanwhile, many religious Zionists will also vote for Likud. The disintegration of the NRP is expected to help Shas, which has historically taken away votes from the party.