Religious parties hold steady at 16 seats, meet Netanyahu

The two haredi parties combine for 16 seats at present. 

By Paul Shindman, World Israel News

Official returns Wednesday showed Israel’s two leading religious parties held their ground in the March 2 election.

With 99% of the vote counted, the Shas Party remains at nine seats, its haul from the previous election, and United Torah Judaism (UTJ) maintained its position with seven seats in the 120-seat Knesset, Israel’s parliament.

Current results showing a right-wing coalition being two seats short of a 61-seat majority.

On Tuesday afternoon, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with potential coalition partners including Shas leader Aryeh Deri and UTJ leaders Yaakov Litzman and Moshe Gafni.

At the start of the meeting with Netanyahu Litzman optimistically told Ynet he was “sure we will reach a situation where there will be no more elections.”

Former defense minister and right-wing government partner Avigdor Liberman’s Israel Beiteinu party at seven seats (down one from September’s election) could give Netanyahu a comfortable 65 seat coalition, but Liberman refuses to be part of a government if the two religious parties are partners.

Liberman tweeted he was adamant his party “will not join any government led by Netanyahu that has Shas and United Torah,” reflecting a long-standing feud over exemptions for their followers from military service and what Lieberman has termed religious coercion.

Deri said “there is no way we will sit down with” Liberman, Ynet reported.

Shas and UTJ are traditional partners in coalition governments, historically joining either a right or left-wing government in exchange for cabinet portfolios and budget support for the issues affecting their electorate including funding of religious schools and seminaries.

After Likud with its 36 seats, Shas would be the second largest coalition partner if Netanyahu can form a government. The other expected partners are UTJ and the Yemina (or, “Rightwards”) Party with its six seats, currently giving Netanyahu only 59 seats.

The two religious parties both reject mandatory military service for their followers, although Deri himself served in the IDF and was honorably discharged with the rank of sergeant major.

Despite the acrimony, veteran UTJ legislator Uri Maklev appeared to leave the door open to a reconciliation with Liberman, saying in an Israel Army Radio interview that UTJ “does not rule out sitting with Yisrael Beiteinu” so long as Liberman would revert to policies when the three parties had previously sat together in a Netanyahu-led government from 2016-2018.