By Rabbi Dow Marmur.
The good news about 92 year-old Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef – whom the Shas party describes as its spiritual leader but who acts more like its sole owner – is that he has made a complete recovery from his mini stroke. The bad news about him is that he continues to make outrageous pronouncements.
This time he has characterized the up-and-coming Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) Orthodox-nationalist party as “the home of goyim.” The accused have reacted with restraint by stating that though they “respect and admire” Rabbi Yosef, their aim is “to act as a bridge between the sectors of Israeli society.” In the process they may take votes from Shas, which would have prompted Ovadiah Yosef’s outburst.
That’s good news, too. The bad news is that Habayit Hayehudi is grooming itself to lead the government after the one to be voted in this week. It has already been castigated by the Netanyahu-Lieberman alliance of Likud Beiteinu for claiming the same ground, not only with regard to settlements but also by offering Lieberman’s Russians, many of whom are disenfranchised by Shas because of their at times questionable halachic status as Jews. Habayit Hayehudi promises to liberalize conversions, perhaps even introduce civil marriage. That would gain support from secularists across present divisions in Israel without challenging the party’s hard line on Palestinians.
There’s, therefore, no reason for liberals to rejoice. For the main purpose of Habayit Hayehudi is to serve the settlers by abandoning any hope of negotiations with the Palestinians about a two-state solution. Its seeming openness about internal matters should be seen in the context of its rejection of coming to terms with the Palestinians.
It’s assumed that Habayit Hayyehudi will be part of the next Netanyahu coalition. But that’s only the beginning. In the election following this one – by which time whatever electoral capital Netanyahu may have had will have been spent – the party will have most Knesset seats and Naftali Bennett will be the next prime minister. By being young (just over 40), rich (and thus perhaps less corruptible), modern, Orthodox but open to the secular world, attractive to the middle classes, “charismatic” and staunchly nationalist, he covers enough bases to take votes from virtually all other parties.
Whereas Netanyahu occasionally gives the impression, particularly when appearing on the international arena, that he favors a two-state solution – “if he only had a Palestinian partner he could talk to” – Bennett will not even attempt that. President Obama is bound to know it, too. Therefore, he’ll make every effort to bring Netanyahu’s government to the negotiating table as soon as possible and before Bennet takes over. But at this stage, it’s difficult to assess Obama’s chances.
Of course, the above speculations may be totally unwarranted if the polls turn out to be useless and misleading in their projections of a right-wing coalition with Netanyahu at its helm and Bennet in the cabinet. The prospect of a centre-left government doesn’t seem to be on the cards.
But the speculations about the government after this one with Bennet as prime minister must not be ignored. The change may, indeed, bring new life to Israeli politics but most unlikely in the way liberals would like to see it, because the mixture of religion and nationalism that already bedevils Israeli politics will be further strengthened.