A Pyrrhic Victory

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The results speak for themselves. Shas, headed by Arye Deri, registered a resounding success with traditional voters. But is this a long term victory?

Ultra-Orthodox Knesset Members

Flash 90

The Ultra-Orthodox parties won the battle—but they lost the war. Their electoral success this month is indeed remarkable, but their political situation is now much worse than it was after the elections in April. Even if they join the next coalition, their standing within it will not be that of kingmaker, but of a fifth wheel—and today—even that is not assured.

The ultra-Orthodox flocked to the polls en masse and, against all odds, increased their parliamentary representation to 17 seats, one more than their already impressive performance in April. It was a tough fight, because voter turnout in general -and in the Arab sector in particular- was higher than five months ago. The air-of-crisis campaign waged by the ultra-Orthodox parties proved very effective this time. Avigdor Liberman’s call for a secular unity government, which Blue White ultimately subscribed to, made the ultra-Orthodox genuinely fearful that their political achievements were in danger.

The results speak for themselves. Shas registered a resounding success with traditional voters. In a number of cities where the ultra-Orthodox are not a majority, including Ashqelon, Rishon Lezion, Rosh Ha’ayin, and Qiryat Gat, its support increased by nearly 50%. And in the ultra-Orthodox town of Elad, to take one example, the percentage of the vote that went to Shas and United Torah Judaism grew from 79% to 84%. On the other hand, in April the two parties had almost totally exhausted their potential support from ultra-Orthodox voters, in sharp contrast to the situation in the Arab sector, where turnout this month was much higher than in the previous election.

As stated however, despite their performance at the ballot box, the ultra-Orthodox parties’ situation as the coalition negotiations get underway is not rosy. They continue to declare their absolute commitment to the Likud and Netanyahu, and utterly reject sitting in a Government that would include Yair Lapid, and thus-- with Blue White. Now that five months have passed, the results of the April elections seem like a distant dream.

Still, the ultra-Orthodox parties are not monolithic. Shas, unlike United Torah Judaism, could still join a government that includes Blue White, even if Lapid holds a senior position in it.

The reason for the knotty situation in which Shas and United Torah Judaism find themselves, is not only that they tied their fate to Netanyahu instead of adopting a position that would leave them as the deciding voice, as Liberman succeeded in doing. It is also a result of their political behavior of the last few years, when they tried to milk their position to the fullest advantage, for the benefit of their electorate, in a way that generated a negative public reaction that worked to their disadvantage. The proposed Conscription Law drafted by the defense establishment treated them with kid gloves, and negotiations could have made it even more favorable to them —but the two parties rejected it straight off. . Even during the coalition negotiations in April-May, they insisted on trashing the bill’s core principles—and it is this stubbornness that impelled Liberman to rediscover his secular identity.

The polls that promised Yisrael Beitenu twice as many seats as it won in April merely strengthened the party’s opposition to the ultra-Orthodox. And then, after the April elections, it found itself holding the political balance of power, supplanting the ultra-Orthodox parties in this role. Near the end of the present election campaign, when Benny Gantz realized that there was nothing he could do to win over the ultra-Orthodox parties, he too joined the call for a secular unity government.

Could things have been different? In recent years, some voices among the ultra-Orthodox have been calling on their parties to be more cautious about budgetary matters and on issues related to religion and state. With regard to the proposed new Conscription Law, here too-- most ultra-Orthodox politicians realized that it was not so bad for them. But at the moment of truth, they fell into line behind the unyielding rejection of the law by one of the community’s most dominant leaders—the Rabbi from Gur, as voiced through his representative, Deputy Minister Yaakov Litzman. The lure of exercising political power proved too strong for them, and the ultra-Orthodox parties are now paying the price.

The article was published in the Jerusalem Post.