The leader of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, Moshe Gafni, said Saturday that his party “will weigh” its options if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does not secure a majority coalition after Tuesday’s election.
Gafni said there was “no meaning” to a loyalty pledge his party signed to Netanyahu last month, but said he still supported the premier and hopes for his victory in the election.
United Torah Judaism is a key partner in Netanyahu’s bloc of right-wing and religious parties, which he has relied on to successfully prevent the formation of more centrist and secular coalitions after previous elections.
Final polls released last week showed Netanyahu on the cusp of securing a bare majority of 61 seats in Tuesday’s vote, Israel’s fourth in two years, if he has the support of Naftali Bennett’s Yamina faction, which has not ruled out joining a Netanyahu-led coalition.
In a pre-election interview with Channel 12, when pressed about what his party will do if Netanyahu fails to secure 61 seats for his bloc, Gafni said, “We’ll weigh [what to do] before going to fifth elections.”
“I hope that such a disaster won’t happen,” he said.
Gafni said that he was allied with Netanyahu’s Likud party because it includes “traditional” voters, not because it is right-wing.
“Being on the right doesn’t play a part for me,” Gafni said. “I’ve been with Netanyahu for many years. I go with him because the traditional public is with Likud. If the traditional public was somewhere else, I would also go somewhere else.”
Last month, Gafni did not rule out a coalition with opposition leader Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party and would not commit to recommending Netanyahu as leader the next government. “After the election results we’ll see what the options are,” he said.
Later in February, however, United Torah Judaism and the ultra-Orthodox Shas party signed a loyalty pledge to Netanyahu agreeing that they will not independently join a government led by any party other than Likud after the March 23 vote.
On Saturday, Gafni brushed aside that pledge.
“Our signing loyalty with Netanyahu has no meaning,” he said.
Gafni told Channel 13 on Saturday that Lapid has shifted his approach to the ultra-Orthodox.
“Lapid has changed in his language, terminology, approach. I don’t know the reasons,” he said.
He said that if Lapid changed his policies, they could be partners, but if Lapid maintained parts of his platform anathema to the ultra-Orthodox it was not a possibility.
He told Channel 13 that if Netanyahu doesn’t secure 61 seats, “You can invite me in and interview me again. We’ll talk again.”
Ultra-Orthodox parties have long reviled Lapid and his Yesh Atid party, which has touted secularist policies and opposed ongoing ultra-Orthodox control on many levers of power. However, Gafni signaled his party may be less resolutely opposed to Lapid than before.
The ultra-Orthodox parties are also resolutely opposed to the secularist Avigdor Liberman of the right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party.
Asked last month if Lapid was a potential ally, Gafni demurred. “Who knows? We’ll see. If his political platform changes we’ll discuss it.”
Gafni, who is also the Knesset Finance Committee chairman, took the leadership of United Torah Judaism last month from Yaakov Litzman as part of a power-sharing deal between the two. United Torah Judaism is composed of two parties — the Degel Hatorah faction of Lithuanian (non-Hasidic) ultra-Orthodox Jews, led by Gafni, and Litzman’s Agudat Israel faction representing Hasidic communities.
Gafni was interviewed on Channel 12’s “Meet the Press” on Saturday by anchor Rina Matsliah, as were most other party leaders.
The head of the left-wing Labor party, Merav Michaeli, refused to rule out sitting in a coalition with ultra-Orthodox parties in her interview, after the head of the dovish Meretz party asked why she was willing to be part of a government with the ultra-Orthodox.
“We don’t boycott any community,” Michaeli said.
Michaeli also would not commit to recommending Lapid as prime minister after the elections, saying Labor will back whoever is able to put together a majority coalition to replace Netanyahu.
Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party is expected to be the second-largest party, with around 18 seats, after Likud’s 30-32 seats, according to polls.
Besides Lapid, Netanyahu faces challengers on the right from Bennett and Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope party.
Sa’ar has ruled out joining a Netanyahu-led coalition, while Bennett has not; both have said they will not sit in a government led by Lapid.
The Islamist Ra’am faction, which is polling at around four seats, has also not committed to any prospective coalition.
Polls have consistently showed no clear path to a majority for either the pro- or anti-Netanyahu political blocs.
The election — the fourth in two years — was called after the power-sharing government of Likud and Blue and White failed to agree on a budget by a December 23 deadline. The election, like the previous three votes, is largely seen as a referendum on Netanyahu’s rule, given his ongoing trial on corruption charges, as well as his government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.