For decades, the ultra-Orthodox parties have been a central component in Israeli politics. They have been a balance between the left-wing bloc and the right-wing bloc, and their influence has far exceeded their relative size. Throughout the years they have been in almost every government and succeeded in exploiting their power over legislation regarding issues relevant to religion, state, and budgets. Despite being a bloc with quite a bit of power, many don’t understand what they stand for or how they have come to be leading figures in the shaping of Israel’s politics. Here’s a short history about who they are, where their power comes from, and how they might affect the upcoming elections.

United Torah Judaism: United Torah Judaism was formed in 1992 as an alliance between Degel HaTorah and Agudat Israel, two Ashkenazi Haredi political parties. Even though the two parties do not always agree with each other, they have cooperated and united as a voting bloc in order to win the maximum number of seats in the Knesset.

Agudat Israel was the first Haredi party in Israel, and today it primarily represents the Hasidic Haredi community. It was founded in 1912 as an organization representing ultra-Orthodox Jews in Poland who opposed the Zionist movement. The opposition to the formation of a Jewish state was held by many orthodox Jews who believed the Jewish state should emerge from divine intervention and not by a Zionist movement. In the wake of the Holocaust, anti-Zionist rabbis who led Agudat Israel began to recognize the need for a Jewish state. Thus, they decided to cease their opposition towards the creation of Israel but would not participate in the Zionist movement. The party originally was a mix of Hasidic and Lithuanian Haredim. However, in 1980 Israel’s Litvak (non-Haredi) community felt that they were not represented enough, leading to them splitting from the party and creating their own – Degel Hatorah.

Policy decisions of the party are made by its Council of Torah Sages, which includes several prominent Hasidic leaders and rabbis. The party’s original reservations toward the State of Israel influenced its decision throughout the years to refuse cabinet positions and their main work in government has been to advocate for their Haredi constituents on issues of budgets for education, housing, social services, non-military service for religious reasons, and the preservation of a Jewish-religious character to the State of Israel. Since the party formally rejects Zionism, their position on the Palestinian question has been flexible and they do not view such issues ideologically. This position has elevated their relative political power, for it has allowed them throughout the years to participate in both Likud and Labor led coalitions.

Shas: In 1984, under the leadership of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the Sephardic Haredi Jews who were also frustrated from being under-represented by the Ashkenazi dominated party founded the Shas party. The party’s main ideology is to protect the religious and cultural heritage of the Sephardic community. Shas aims to end what it sees as continued economic and social discrimination against the Sephardic population, as well as to bring the traditional Mizrahi Jews closer to Judaism and thus “restore its former glory.” For these reasons not all Shas voters are ultra-Orthodox; many are traditional Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews who feel that other parties don’t represent their “Middle Eastern culture” or neglect their economic discrimination.

On political issues, Shas’s position in the past was relatively moderate, again allowing them to sit in government with both left-wing and right-wing parties. In 2010, Shas joined the World Zionist Organization, the umbrella organization of the Zionist movement, and the party announced that it would change its charter and has moved more towards the political right. This step aroused harsh responses from Degel Hatorah and Agudat Israel.

The Haredi influence on shaping Israel’s politics

By the end of the 1970s, Israel’s political map was changing from a one dominant party structure (Mapai, Alignment) to a structure of two main blocs. As a result, the political leverage of smaller parties grew, including the ultra-Orthodox ones. Because of Israel’s system of proportional representation that allows small parties to wield the balance of power between the larger parties, since the 80s, the ultra-Orthodox parties have played a crucial role in the formation of Israel’s coalition governments. Moreover, their flexibility toward the Palestinian question has allowed them to move across the political axis easily. For example, United Torah Judaism has won throughout the years a relatively small amount of mandates, between four to seven. However, they have been part of almost every coalition since 1981. Furthermore, Shas has won throughout the years an average of 10 mandates and has been part of every coalition except for two since its founding.

When in government, the ultra-Orthodox parties primarily worked to promote the transferring of funds to religious institutions throughout the country. Their political leverage has been used to obtain funding for yeshivas and community institutions from the government. Moreover, they have fought to obtain a de facto exemption for Haredi Yeshiva students from military service, and to pass legislation regarding observance of the Shabbat and kosher laws.

This increase in their relative power has made them many political enemies, who have claimed that they use their power for “political extortion” of the public’s money. In 2003, in opposition to the demands of the ultra-Orthodox parties in general, and Shas in particular, the Shinui party, headed by Tommy Lapid, stood out and conditioned its entry into the government in that Shas would not be a partner in the coalition. In the 16th Knesset, Shinui won 15 Knesset seats and entered the coalition headed by Ariel Sharon, leaving Shas in the opposition for the first time. This can be seen as a main tipping point in Israeli politics for it influenced the years to come in many ways.

Ariel Sharon’s government, with then Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, worked to drastically reduce the ultra-Orthodox budgets and perks. This lasted until the 17th Knesset when Ehud Olmert resigned from his position of prime minister, leaving Tzipi Livni the job of renegotiating a new coalition. Without the Haredi parties a coalition could not be made, leading the way for the Haredi parties to redemand its budgets and child allowances. Tzipi Livni refused their demands and preferred to dissolve the government and go to elections. In those elections Kadima, headed by Tzipi Livni, won with 28 mandates, however, once again, could not build a coalition, thus giving over the government to Netanyahu who, as we all know, stayed there for the next decade.

What will happen in the upcoming elections?

Recent polls show that, once again, in order to build a coalition, the Haredi parties will probably get a seat at the table (considering the fact that the Arab parties are usually not part of the equation). If Gantz was to build a coalition without Likud and other right-wing parties he would be at the mercy of Shas and UTJ. Traditionally this wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, seeing that Haredi parties will usually enter any coalition that answers its budget demands during negotiations, so if Gantz is willing to do so, they can potentially work together.

However, the past decade has moved the Haredi parties to the right, believing that they have found their natural partner with Netanyahu, who seems to cooperate with their demands. Furthermore, being the son of Tommy Lapid, the famous anti-Haredi politician, Yair Lapid has become the ultra-Orthodox community’s archenemy, reminding them of a time where they were kicked out of government. It doesn’t help that Lapid was one of the main advocates for equal drafting rights and forcing the ultra-Orthodox to enlist in the army. As of right now, any government that Lapid is part of is likely to be a no go for the Haredi parties.

That being said, things can still change. The ultra-Orthodox community might find that blindly supporting Netanyahu might not be the best decision. Even though their budgets have gone up, not all promises were fulfilled: construction work for the train still happens on Saturday, soccer games take place as well, the minimarkets law didn’t help close even one grocery store, and it seems that Netanyahu has chosen to avoid amending the Draft Law at all costs, contrary to the coalition agreement. Moreover, they should not forget that, traditionally, Netanyahu comes from a more liberal economic background and has cut their budgets in the past. Bennett and Shaked are also known for their more capitalist worldview, which might not always agree with social parties like Shas. Furthermore, morally not all ultra-Orthodox Jews agree with Netanyahu’s ways of conduct. The Haredi parties know that their main goal (budgets and allowances) does not justify the means (ignoring corruption and deceit).

The ultra-Orthodox community is changing every day, and despite the perception of Haredi voting patterns, they don’t vote as one disciplined herd. With their demographic growth comes more diversity in their beliefs, and some even vote for other parties. However, if they were to build a coalition with Lapid and Gantz, sacrifices will have to be made on both sides.