More Drama in Israeli Election Season

There have been a number of interesting developments in just the past few days of the Israeli election:

The Likud Primary: Not every Israeli party picks its list of candidates for the Knesset with a primary election, but the major secular ones have adopted the practice. This year’s Likud primary was very interesting for two reasons.

First, the increasingly shopworn Binyamin Netanyahu managed deftly to fend off a major challenge from the right wing of his own party in the person of Moshe Feiglin. Feiglin is a religiously observant nationalist who left the old Iggud Le’ummi before it amalgamated with Ha-Bayit Ha-Yehudi under Naftali Bennett’s leadership to “bore from within” in Likud. He did not fare especially well in the primary vote, nor did one of his chief supporters, Tzipi Hotovely. They won seats number 27 and 26, respectively, neither of which is considered a “safe” or “realistic” seat in the next election, where Likud has consistently been registering in Israeli polls at between 20-25 seats. In both cases, this marks a significant decline: Feiglin had held seat 15 and Hotovely seat 10 in the 2013 primary, which preceded the last election.

Netanyahu had his sights on Feiglin ever since Feiglin challenged him for the party chairmanship and failed. There have been numerous outcries of alleged irregularities in the primary election, allegations of uncounted polling places as well as certain polling places registering more votes than were actually cast. As a result, a recount is underway and the results could be interesting.

The Sage of Shas and Der’i Agonistes

The Sephardic Orthodox party has fallen into disarray with the passing of its founder and spiritual mentor, former Israeli Chief Rabbi ‘Ovadya Yosef (father of the current Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef).

For the almost thirty years of the party’s existence, one of its leading lights has been Rabbi Aryeh Der’i, a close disciple of Rabbi Yosef’s. It was under Rabbi Der’i’s political leadership that Shas’ Knesset delegation shot up from six seats (1992) to ten (1996) to 17 seats (1999), to the great alarm of many of Israeli’s secular opinion makers. It was not long after that election that the Israeli attorney general announced an investigation of Rabbi Der’i’s finances.

After a process which went on for years, followed by a trial in which everything turned on hearsay evidence, Rabbi Der’i was convicted of accepting a bribe of $2,000 and sentenced to prison time. Though at the time (as it is now) it was very widely suspected that he had been railroaded by the secular establishment, who were afraid of Der’i’s political acumen, he served his time. He stayed out of politics for 10 years after being released from prison. In the meantime, another student of Rabbi Yosef’s, Rabbi Eli Yishai, took the party’s helm. Shas never again has had more than 12 seats (its present delegation is 11).

Before the last election, Rabbi Der’i returned to the chairmanship of Shas, with Rabbi Yosef’s blessings, and faced a difficult challenge. Two splinter parties -- ‘Am Shalem, headed by former Shasnik Chayyim Amsalem, and Koach le-Hashpia‘, heeded by Rabbi Yitzchaq Amnon -- competed for the same constituency. Though neither of the two splinter parties made the threshold of enough votes to secure two seats (the law has since been changed to require sufficient votes to win 3.25 seats), they took enough votes away from Shas that, had they not contested the election, Shas would probably have had 14 or 15 seats.

Now, not only has Chayyim Amsalem announced his intention to try again, but Eli Yishai has joined with former Bayith Yehudi member Yossi Chetboun to form a new party, Ha-‘Am Itanu. Most polls indicate it is very close to the minimum threshold, either slightly over or slightly under. Amidst the swirl of controversy over the move, an Israeli television station broadcast a video taken at a private meeting with the late Rabbi Yosef, who appears to disparage Rabbi Der’i on various grounds.