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Netanyahu is Glue Keeping Shas Together, Expert Says
Shas leader Aryeh Deri (R) whispers to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu during a meeting of the right-wing bloc at the Knesset in Jerusalem on March 4, 2020. (Menahem Kahana/AFP via Getty Images)

Netanyahu is Glue Keeping Shas Together, Expert Says

But the largest ultra-Orthodox party may shrink after Chairman Deri, prime minister leave the scene

Spirits were high at Shas campaign headquarters on Tuesday night as activists gathered after a final push on Election Day. Some waved small plastic party flags, while others threw Shas ballot slips in the air in acts of jubilation, quickly covering the floor with the small pieces of paper sporting the movement’s name.

Only 250 activists were allowed into the final event because of COVID-19 regulations, and although this led to frustration and violence outside the Jerusalem venue, inside, young Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) men walked around speaking excitedly.

At 10 pm, the voting ended nationwide and the large screen behind the stage showed exit poll results. A loud cheer rose up as the surveys predicted a narrow win for the right-wing bloc, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s group of allies that includes Shas.

A second, equally loud cry was heard when Shas was shown to have received nine Knesset seats, neither losing nor gaining in power. A third round of applause, just as joyous, rang loudly as the screen showed that the hawkish Religious Zionism party, headed by MK Bezalel Smotrich, had exceeded expectations.

Shas supporters cheer as exit poll results are announced at election headquarters, March 23, 2021. (Daniel Sonnenfeld/The Media Line)

Final results are still pending but the bloc’s success now appears less than certain.

While some might expect loyalty to party to trump all others, and therefore, its success to receive the most attention from a crowd of Shas activists, the supporters, flush with success, focused more on the so-called right bloc’s success than on the projection that Shas will be Israel’s third-largest party.

Talk among the troops of young supporters again and again returned to the bloc, rather than focusing on party success. “I would prefer that Shas receive more than another party,” David Yaacovi, a Shas activist, told The Media Line, “but at the end of the day, I don’t care who gets more. The most important thing is that the right bloc will have 61 seats,” a governing majority.

Avraham Biton, another Shas activist, agrees. While he would prefer a bloc with a strong Shas, “the bloc” is more important. “We were happy that Smotrich passed the threshold” because of its meaning for the bloc, Biton told The Media Line.

The “right bloc” is a misleading label given to a host of parties whose main shared characteristic is loyalty to Netanyahu as prime minister, or their willingness to accept his continued rule. The name was coined for political reasons, allowing Netanyahu supporters and allies to designate the prime minister’s rivals as left-wing in Israel’s consistently right-dominated political landscape. This has led to such absurdities as designating Netanyahu-challengers New Hope Chairman Gideon Sa’ar and Yisrael Beitenu head Avigdor Liberman, both considered more hawkish than the premier, as leftists.

Shas MK Yoav Ben-Tzur supports the activists’ focus on the bloc. “There’s no point in having a large number of seats when you don’t have a bloc and you can’t form a strong and stable coalition,” he told The Media Line.

Prof. Nissim Leon, a senior lecturer at Bar-Ilan University’s Sociology and Anthropology Department and an expert on Shas, has another explanation. The Sephardi Haredi party was not always aligned with the Right, and in the past formed governments with left-wing parties. Yet, Shas “has always had a nationalist aspect, always,” Leon told The Media Line.

The party has always had two ideological roots, the nationalist viewpoint and the Haredi viewpoint, which puts an emphasis on Torah study and the allocation of resources that requires, Leon explains. Shas’ politicians have always had to balance these two forces to satisfy their voters and the rabbis who have the final say on policy.

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, a Shas co-founder and its longtime chairman, has perfected this balancing act, the professor says.

Deri has emphasized to his voters his close alliance with Netanyahu and the Right. With this, he has satisfied the strong nationalist sentiment that exists among Shas supporters. They “feel that they are partners in the leadership of the Right” because of this relationship, Leon says. “The Right’s rule is dependent on them [Shas] and that is basically what their voters wanted.” Because of this sentiment, a win for the bloc is a win for them.

Another thing tying Shas to the right bloc is its voters’ feelings regarding Netanyahu. Shas supporters “see Netanyahu as a very significant figure…, almost a spiritual leader,” Leon says.

Deri consistently brings his ties with Netanyahu to the forefront. Indeed, one of his campaign slogans was “Bibi [Netanyahu] needs a strong Aryeh,” hinting that a vote for him is also a vote for the prime minister. Again, this explains the campaigners’ sense of success when learning of the bloc’s supposed victory.

While Deri has been keeping some of his base content with his alliance with the Right, he has also had to meet Shas’ Haredi obligations, most obviously represented by the party’s Council of Torah Sages, the rabbinic council at the top of its hierarchy.

Leon says Deri’s agreement with the council is that “I will bring you the power and the funding” to realize your plans, “but allow me to act autonomously.”

Practically speaking, this means that the political power created by Shas’ nationalist rhetoric and alliance with Netanyahu is directed to “maintaining the society of Torah learners,” in accordance with the party’s Haredi allegiance.

At present, Deri is managing to keep these different inclinations within his constituency – the national and the Haredi – at peace. This is thanks, in no small part, to the special position of Netanyahu, which the professor says acts “as the glue holding Shas together.”

What will happen on the day after Netanyahu? That is hard to say, but Leon thinks that without the prime minister at the helm and Deri as head of the party, Shas is likely to weaken.

Another source of instability is the rabbinical council. Were it to desire more influence, drawing Shas away from the nationalist agenda toward a more religious path, many of the party’s more nationalist voters might look for a different political home.

Already, some Shas voters feel it is not nationalist enough.

Yosef Tzabah voted for Shas in previous elections but decided to vote for Religious Zionism this time. Tzabah says his main concerns are terrorism and crime, “and the only one that will deal with it with determination is Itamar Ben-Gvir, so we voted for him.”

Ben-Gvir is a right-wing activist, considered by many, including on the Israeli Right, to be extreme and illegitimate. Tzabah confirms that part of the reason for his shift is a “bloc-wide view,” meaning that as long as he votes for a member of the right bloc, he is not actually forsaking Shas, a possible outcome of Shas’ “bloc rhetoric,” framing the party as part of a group that is tied together by beliefs and interests.

Ben-Tzur seems unconcerned about a possible drift of party voters to other members of the bloc, saying that Smotrich had not “siphoned votes from Shas.” But another party MK, Uriel Buso, speaks differently.

“We also paid a priced for the sake of Smotrich’s party,” he told The Media Line. “There’s no doubt that we should have had 11 or 12 seats.” However, he also stressed the importance of the bloc and its size for the party, hinting that at present, Shas can afford to lose a seat or two for the sake of the coalition.

In the future, however, such “bloc rhetoric” may prove more costly for the party. Leon agrees that Deri’s fine balancing act may push some of his voters to embrace a more nationalist approach. And on the day after Deri and Netanyahu, if the party’s rabbis decide to enforce a more Haredi-centered agenda, Shas may certainly suffer a blow for it.

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