Otzma Yehudit brawls with Shas over Chief Rabbinate election delay

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Ministers from the far-right Otzma Yehudit and ultra-Orthodox Shas parties reportedly clashed during Sunday’s cabinet meeting as the government moved to postpone elections for the Chief Rabbinate.

The sharply worded exchange, leaked to Hebrew media, exposed persisting tensions between the far-right and ultra-Orthodox flanks of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition, as Shas fended off claims that it was seeking the delay to push the candidacy of party head Aryeh Deri’s brother for Sephardic chief rabbi.

During the argument, Shas minister Haim Biton threatened to torpedo an Otzma Yehudit-sponsored bill on monitoring domestic abusers if the vote was not delayed, claiming control over the rabbinate, a state institution that controls life-cycle affairs and other matters for all Israeli Jews regardless of religious observance.

“It’s not your business,” Biton, a minister in the Education Ministry, was quoted in a riposte to Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir, who had argued that all Israelis have a stake in the rabbinate.

“The chief rabbis are ours,” Biton added, offering a political quid-pro-quo. “We’ll do what you want and we won’t interfere.”

The contentious postponement was approved by the cabinet on Sunday, with Otzma Yehudit ministers voting against it and United Torah Judaism ministers abstaining. Once the proposal is approved by the Knesset, the rabbinical elections will be held after the municipal elections on October 31.

Ben Gvir, the national security minister better known for his hardline attitudes toward Arabs and leftists, led the opposition to Shas’s push. According to the Haaretz daily, delaying the vote could boost the candidacy of Beersheba Chief Rabbi Yehuda Deri, who is running to be Sephardic chief rabbi against Rabbi David Yosef, brother of current Chief Sephardic Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef and son of the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, a former Sephardic chief rabbi who founded Shas. Aryeh Deri has been lobbying Yosef to drop the bid, unsuccessfully so far, the broadsheet reported earlier this month.

“Enough with the tricks, enough with the shtick,” Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir said during the meeting, according to leaked transcripts. “You’re constantly looking for ways to make detours and avoid the high road. You can’t do deals in closed rooms.”

He accused the party of “changing the rules in the middle of the game,” and accused Biton of being anti-Zionist.

Religious Services Minister Michael Malchieli, the Shas lawmaker who requested the delay, accused Ben Gvir of opposing the postponement for his own political interests.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir holds a meeting at his ministry offices in Jerusalem, June 15, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Malchieli announced the postponement in June over concerns the municipal voting could interfere with the rabbinical elections, in which a council of 150 people — most of them rabbis affiliated with local offices of the rabbinate and their employees — select an Ashkenazi and a Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel.

The powerful, tax-funded institution is viewed as irrelevant or worse by wide swathes of Israeli society and decades of official nepotism have left it open to charges of corruption.

“A rabbi should be chosen for his skills and not his connections,” UTJ minister Yitzhak Wasserlauf tweeted following the meeting. He suggested that the matter be decided by coalition heads.

According to the leaked comments Sunday, UTJ MK Meir Porush also accused Shas of not cooperating with his ultra-Orthodox faction over the election and making the matter political.

Religious Services Minister Michael Malchieli arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on January 3, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Despite winning the postponement, bad blood remained between the parties following the meeting, with a senior Shas official sending a message to the press calling Ben Gvir “the most failed minister in the government.”

“And the Otzma Yehudit party is the weakest link in the country’s leadership,” the official added.

Ben Gvir’s office told the Maariv daily that Deri was a major supporter of freezing the coalition’s controversial plans to shackle the judiciary.

“Had he lined up alongside us in promoting meaningful legislation on the judiciary rather than playing small politics, we wouldn’t have the issues we do now and the reforms would have passed,” his office said.

During the meeting, Otzma Yehudit reportedly accused Shas of making a deal with opposition parties to support the election of Karine Elharrar to the Judicial Selection Committee in exchange for a law to allow Deri to be a minister.

Shas chair Aryeh Deri arrives at the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on June 14, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Deri, who previously served time on a graft conviction, was appointed health and interior minister after the right-religious coalition took power, but was later stripped of those posts by the High Court due to a fresh conviction on tax offenses and a suspected attempt to mislead the court about his future in politics.

The coalition has sought to pass new legislation that will allow him to return to the cabinet.

A Likud official told Maariv that the campaign to pass a law for Deri had consumed the government, endangering it.

“There is nothing on the daily agenda, except for Deri’s return to the government. Why do we need this unnecessary front now with Ben Gvir,” the official said. “If the government falls because of Deri’s personal whims, he will pay for it at the ballot box.”

Canaan Lidor contributed to this report.

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