Israel’s Great Haredi Hope

Aryeh Deri has returned as a leader in the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party. But will he help the Israeli peace camp?

Eyal Warshavsky, File / AP Photo

In the 1990s he was one of the most influential power brokers in Israeli politics. But a bribery scandal sent him to jail for two years, which were followed by a decade away from the spotlight.

Now Aryeh Deri is back as a leader in the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party ahead of the Jan. 22 election, raising hope in the Israeli peace camp that it can return to power by reviving its old partnership with Deri and his Sephardi supporters. To many analysts, the idea seems farfetched. Though people who know him describe Deri as a moderate when it comes to peacemaking with the Palestinians, Shas voters tend to be hardliners who are opposed to the kind of far-reaching concessions required for a deal on Palestinian statehood.

Except for the occasional disagreement over religious and social issues, over the past four years, Shas has maintained a fruitful alliance with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hawkish Likud Party.

Any yet, political operators hoping to prevent Netanyahu’s reelection have made Deri the centerpiece of their strategy, banking on what they describe as his crossover potential.

“Aryeh Deri is the man who can steal votes from the extreme right and bring them to the left. And he’s the only man who can do it,” said Haim Ramon, a former member of Parliament from the centrist Kadima Party who is now working behind the scenes to help the center-left parties unseat Netanyahu. “He’s dovish and he’s moderate in issues that are related to religion and state. So the fact that he was for many years out of politics was a great loss for Israeli society,” he told The Daily Beast.

The strategy of Ramon and others involves two stages. First, the four or five parties fighting for the Israeli center must capture at least as many seats in the 120-member Parliament as the right-wing alliance of Netanyahu’s Likud Party and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu.

Then, in the messy horse trading that follows elections in Israel, the center-left bloc would try to persuade Deri to tack left with his Shas Party instead of right, giving the peace camp a majority of seats and allowing it to form the next government.

The model for the maneuver is Israel’s 1992 election, when Yitzhak Rabin led the left-center Labor Party to 44 seats and assembled a governing coalition with the backing of Shas and the left-wing Meretz Party. The Rabin government went on to clinch a first-ever peace deal with the Palestinians.

On paper, at least, the approach is plausible, according to analysts. In reality, it’s more complicated. Since Shas is primarily a sectarian party, it could potentially align itself with parties on either side of the political divide, so long as its narrow-issue demands are met. Those include maintaining state funding for its ultra-Orthodox education programs and extending the policy of Army service exemptions for yeshiva students. The problem for the center-left is that at least one party, Yesh Atid, has made doing away with the service exemptions a focus of its platform. Other parties, like Kadima and Hatnua, also emphasize universal conscription, though not as prominently.

Since Netanyahu has shown a willingness to compromise on the issue—even when Israel’s High Court of Justice deemed the exemptions a form of inequality—he has an advantage in the contest for Shas’s support. “It’s clear from the history of the party that Shas sees the Likud as its more natural partner,” says Avraham Diskin, a political scientist at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.

Diskin said that if the center-left parties muster at least 60 seats in Parliament—enough to deny Netanyahu a majority—then Shas would likely prefer a partnership with the peace camp over a seat in the opposition. But not a single poll conducted since the start of the election season two months ago has projected 60 seats for the center-left bloc. At best, the left and center parties together are expected to capture some 55 seats in Parliament, and that includes those parties backed and led by Arab-Israelis, which no Israeli government has ever included it its coalition.

If, despite all obstacles, a partnership between Shas and the peace camp did materialize, it’s not clear that the ultra-Orthodox party would support deep compromises with the Palestinians, especially since on Thursday, Deri was forced to accept the party’s No. 2 position, behind Interior Minister Eli Yishai. Shas’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, has shown a willingness over the years to cede parts of the West Bank in exchange for peace (though he’s made caustic anti-Arab statements as well).

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But the party usually balked when concessions were put on the table. Shas opposed a 1995 vote in Israel’s Parliament on the second Oslo agreement with the Palestinians. A decade later it voted against Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

“It is true that 20 years ago, it appeared that Deri was tilting towards a more centrist and less right-wing positions,” said Shlomo Avineri, a political scientist at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.

“But I don’t think that’s the case today. Shas in the last 20 years has become a very hawkish advocate for issues like settlements [in the occupied West Bank], construction in Jerusalem and cracking down on the illegal migrants from Africa. It’s popular with its electorate.”

Opinion polls attest to the shift. While Orthodox Jews were long considered the most hawkish Israelis on issues like settlements, ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel appear to have caught up.

One such survey, published by Tel Aviv University’s Walter Lebach Institute for Jewish-Arab Coexistence in October of this year, showed 70 percent of ultra-Orthodox Israelis felt Palestinians don’t deserve a state of their own. Among Orthodox Jews, the figure was 71 percent (and it was 23 percent among secular Israelis).