Did the haredi parties give Yitzhak Herzog a “song and dance” before the election – leading him believe that he could rely on them to build a coalition, while they were secretly planning to form a government with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu all along.
It's a question that has been often asked in the halls ofZionist Union headquarters since the party's unexpected and demoralizing defeat in the March 17 election, and it was a question asked again Thursday as the party head was interviewed on the Kol Berama radio station, which has a largely haredi audience. Herzog's answer? “I hope not.”
The election saw saw Herzog's party tally 24 seats – three more than in the previous Knesset, but far fewer than the 30 plus many polls had predicted. Likud, meanwhile, added 12 seats over its previous 18, to reach 30 seats.
But those results were not predicted by any poll – and in the days leading up to the election, it had appeared that Labor/Zionist Union had an edge over the Likud, at least in individual seats. What was not clear was if Herzog would be able to form a coalition to create a government – and to do that, the haredi parties were essential.
Old hats at coalition negotiations, Shas and United Torah Judaism observed the protocol and spirit of “coalition science,” as it is known in Israeli politics, meeting with Herzog as well as with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at the appointed times.
Rumors were rampant that the haredi parties had “had enough” of Netanyahu, and were seeking to punish him for allying himself with Yair Lapid, who pushed along legislation requiring haredi yeshiva students to serve in the IDF, or face fines or even jail penalties.
Lending strength to these rumors were widely-reported comments by haredi MKs and party officials. Speaking on March 15, two days before the election, for example, MK Yaakov Litzman of UTJ said that the party had no particular allegiance to either prime ministerial candidate. In an interview with Channel Two, Litzman said that while his party's preference is for Binyamin Netanyahu to remain prime minister, there is also the option of sitting in a government formed by Labor leader Yitzhak Herzog. UTJ, he said, did not view itself as necessarily committed to becoming part of a right-wing government. Sitting with Herzog is a possibility, he noted, adding that the party had in the past been a member of coalition that included the hyper-secular Meretz party.
Speaking just a few days earlier, Shas MK Nissim Ze'ev, one of the founders of the party who had been ousted by chairman Aryeh Deri, said that Shas would have no problem joining a Herzog coalition. “Look at the history,” he said. “Shas once was with Labor and once with Bibi (Binyamin Netanyahu) and (Ehud) Olmert. Shas doesn't intentionally go against the right, but if a situation arises where Herzog has a chance to form a government it will sit with them as will United Torah Judaism."
All this gave Herzog the impression that he had an equal chance with the haredi parties – at the time. But since the election, Herzog said in the interview, it had come to his attention that this might not have been the case. “I am getting more indications all the time that the heads of the haredi parties were in constant contact with Netanyahu, and possibly even during the elections themselves,” implying that they may have somehow helped swing votes to the Likud.
But what's done is done, Herzog said. “All this is now history, as is the question of whether or not I was given the entire picture by the haredi leadership.” Was he deliberately fooled? “I don't know,” said Herzog. “I hope not.”