The kingmakers in Israeli politics: The ultra-orthodox and the far-right parties

The kingmakers in Israeli politics: The ultra-orthodox and the far-right parties
Not a single party has ever won a majority in the Knesset, making coalition governments the norm in Israeli politics. So who are these religious parties exerting their disproportionate influence?
7 min read
11 September, 2019
Netanyahu is running for prime minister again during 17 September polls [Getty]
Winning the April elections for the 21st of the Knesset made Benjamin Netanyahu officially Israel's longest serving prime minister, taking the title from Israel's founding father and first leader David Ben-Gurion.

However, Netanyahu's victory was to be called off only two months after he was elected on 9 April, because he failed to form a coalition government and chose to move towards holding new elections on 17 September 2019.

This is the first time in Israel's history that two elections are held in the same year.

To understand Israeli politics, one must examine how the voting system works, and it is important to highlight that since Israel's birth, not one single party has ever won its own majority in the Knesset. 

In the April elections, Netanyahu won 35 seats for Likud, and his path to form a new coalition seemed to be clear and straightforward, as once again, he could rely on his unwavering partners: the Religious Zionists and Ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) parties who were already lining up to be part of his new far right-wing government.

There are 120 seats in the Knesset, the voters cast their vote for a party and not a candidate. The parties have to pass a 3.25 percent electoral threshold in order to enter the Knesset. The magic number to form a government requires securing 61 of the seats in the Knesset. The president decides which party leader has the best chance of forming a coalition government.

Nevertheless, Netanyahu was to go down in history as Israel's first candidate for prime minister who failed to form a government after being given the mandate from the president.

Netanyahu was banking on his natural partners: Kulanu and United Right which is an alliance made of far-right and Zionist parties; Yisrael Beitiynu and the two powerful Haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ) who each had won eight seats. These parties combined would have given a majority of 65 seats.

Avigdor Liberman of Yisrael Beitiynu refused to offer support, his party had secured five seats and without these seats, Netanyahu had only secured 60 seats and thus not a majority. 

The key issue is the never-ending battle between secularism and ultra-orthodoxsim within the Israeli society. Liberman's refusal brought Netanyahu's government down and forced him to call for a new election.  

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Liberman positioned himself as the warrior who stands up for secular Israel against the ultra-orthodox parties who want a government ruled by Jewish law.

His bold stand against Shas and UTJ was further aggravated because of the governing coalition's failure to obtain a majority to push forward legislation that would see more Haredi men conscript into IDF (Draft Law). Both the Shas and UTJ did not agree to increase the quotas of Haredis joining the IDF.

Relatively small but with immense political power

Since Israel's birth in 1948, members of the Haredi community have been exempted from military service, where every Israeli did not have the 'privilege' of opting out from doing the military service.

Nonetheless, their voice does not come cheap, over the years, representatives of Shas and UTJ have been able to take advantage of their position as the deciding factor of being the Kingmakers who will permit or stand in the way of forming a government.

The MKs (members of the Knesset) of those two Haredi parties have constantly been able to exploit their political power, for example they have obtained bigger budgets for their sector and blocked any piece of legislations that goes against their core-voters' wishes, e.g. Draft Law to the Army.

Media commenters and political analysts often overlook the power these small parties hold over the major parties, like Likud, Kahol Lavan or Ha'avoda (labour). As no single party has ever won its own majority, this has made coalition governments the norm in Israeli politics. This has led to these small parties of the religious far-right Zionists and ultra-religious to exercise disproportionate political power. Should Netanyahu win again in the upcoming 22nd Knesset election on 17 September, both Shas and UTJ have pledged to standby him.

The upcoming election is going to feature a much smaller selection of parties to vote for in comparison to previous elections. The three far-right parties the Kahanist-Otzma Yehudit, the Anti-LGBT Noam and Feiglin's Zehut, stand no chance of passing the 3.25 percent threshold.

According to recently conducted poll by BICOM, Liberman's bold stand against the Haredi parties could win him further five seats. Other parties expected to do well are the Left-wing Zionist party of Democratic Union and Yamina. Polls conducted by Channel 13 and Can News predict that the two Haredi parties will lose 1-2 seats each, while Channel 12 predicate the Joint List will increase with at least one seat.

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Regardless of how well the Haredi parties will do in the upcoming election, their power will not diminish.

The rate of demographic growth amongst the Haredi population is the most rapid amongst all segments of Israeli society, their growth rate is approximately 4 percent annually. In 2009, the Haredi population was 750,000, but by 2018 the number increased to 1,097,000.

According to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics population projection, the Haredi community which currently comprises 12 percent of the total population is expected to reach 15 percent by 2027, and to 2.3 million in 2037.

Both Shas and UTJ want to see Jewish law dominating the public sphere and they want to preserve the Jewish religious character of Israel. Both these parties are rather similar but draw their support from two different communities.

United Torah Judaism is an Ashkenazi ultra-orthodox alliance comprised of two Haredi-parties: the Israel Association and the Flag of Torah.

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These two have run together since the elections for the 13th Knesset in 1992. Their political platform is more focused on promoting the interests of the Haredi community in terms of welfare and education, and the application of Jewish Law in both the private and public sphere.

In 1999, during the 15th Knesset, UTJ left the coalition in protest against the shipment of turbine to the Askhelon power station on the Jewish Sabbath. Regarding foreign policy and security, they have a centrist view. For example, UTJ was a member of the coalition government that carried out the disengagement from Gaza Strip in 2005. However, they tend to support right-wing camp because this camp has a more conservative stance when it comes to religious issues.

Shas or Shomrei Sefarad, meaning the "Sephardic guardians", draw its support from Mizrahi Jews who immigrated to Israel from the Middle East and North Africa. According to the 2009 Statistical Abstract of Israel, 50.2 percent of Israeli Jews are of Mirzahi origin.

Shas was founded in 1984 by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, a Jew from Baghdad who immigrated to Jerusalem at the age of 3 in 1920. 

Shas was established in response to that the Mizrahi Jews were feeling they were at an institutional disadvantage and were underrepresented in Israeli politics in comparison to their Ashkenazi counterpart. At the height of its power, Shas won 17 Knesset seats following the 1999 election. In the next four elections, they won between 11-12 seats. However, the death of its spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia, resulted in a weak performance in the 2015 elections, wining only 7 seats.

Shas shares similar values to UTJ and seek to gather Jews from all over the world in Israel. In term of its security-political position, Shas supports arriving at peace agreements with the Arab states, their support to the two-state-solution is unclear and like its Askhenazi counterpart, UTJ opposes the division of Jerusalem

Netanyahu will be the crowned again as the winner

A reading of all polls shows that it will be impossible for Gantz and Lapid's Blue and White to form the new government. Presuming they agree to go in alliance with Joint List, Democratic Union and Labor-Gesher, altogether they will not get more than 54 seats.

On the other side, Netanyahu has much better chance to form a new government even without Liberman's Yisrael Beitenu. Netanyahu can seek a merge with Yamina, UTJ, Shas and Labour Gesher, this alliance can get him the magical number 61 and put him in the path of becoming again Israel's Prime Minister.


Suzan Quitaz is a researcher specialising in counter terrorism and policing, politics and society in Israel, history of Zionism and anti-Semitism