Shas, UTJ left weaker, exit polls show

National-religious lose up to third of Knesset seats.

Yishai brill 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Yishai brill 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
The two haredi parties, United Torah Judaism and Shas, suffered a blow to their electoral strength, according to the exit polls broadcast Tuesday night. Shas fell to between nine and 10 mandates from 12 Knesset seats in the outgoing Knesset while United Torah Judaism fell to five mandates from six in most polls, though a Smith Research Institute exit poll showed no change for UTJ. Less than an hour after the exit polls, senior members of Shas were already hinting at the possibility of forming a coalition with Kadima, which the polls said had beaten the Likud to remain the Knesset's largest party. "Two almost equal sized blocs - one on the Right and one on the Left - have been formed and Shas is the pivotal party," said Yitzhak Cohen, No. 3 on the Shas list. Over the past three weeks Shas has declared openly that it planned to form a coalition with the Likud, not Kadima, assuming that Binyamin Netanyahu would form the next coalition. Shas's inability to reach an agreement in the fall with Kadima head Tzipi Livni over child allowances was the main factor that led to early elections. Shas rejected Livni's offer of NIS 650 million and hoped to improve its electoral situation in a new vote. In the wake of Shas's apparent drop in electoral power, haredi sources expected criticism of Yishai for erring in his estimation that the party would profit from early elections. The fall in haredi strength came despite the fact that voter turnout was only slightly higher than in the 2006 elections. Earlier in the day, Shas and UTJ had feared that a much higher voter turnout would hurt them, since haredi voters traditionally vote in higher percentages, which gives them an advantage when the national turnout is low. Shas's anti-Lieberman campaign, led by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, might have hurt Israel Beiteinu, which, according to exit polls received up to 15 mandates. But it apparently failed to attract voters to Shas, or even hold all the previous Shas voters. Sources in Shas were hoping Tuesday night that the exit polls, which normally underestimate the party's real strength, had once again missed their mark by at least one mandate. Meanwhile, UTJ's loss of only one seat, despite the vicious infighting between various haredi factions, seemed to reaffirm the strength of the haredi rabbinic leadership. Last week it was still unclear whether or not the leading rabbis would unite to call on the Ashkenazi haredim, numbering about 150,000, to vote for UTJ. There was speculation that the Ashkenazi haredi public would be split between UTJ and Shas. But at the last minute, all the leading haredi rabbis published a declaration to support the Ashkenazi haredi party. The splintered national-religious camp lost up to one-third of its parliamentary strength according to the exit polls. The National Union garnered three Knesset seats, the polls showed, while Habayit Hayehudi won between three and four seats. The tentative results were a major disappointment for the national-religious sector, which together had nine seats in the last Knesset. "This is certainly a failure," said MK Arieh Eldad of the National Union. "But it was a failure we knew of in advance." National Union head Yaakov Katz, who expressed hopes that the numbers would yet go up, called on Habayit Hayehudi to join forces with his party and form one parliamentary bloc.