The haredi party Shas prepared for the elections in the familiar Ariel Atias way, and this time it was appropriate for the year 2013. The party headquarters was established on Har Hotzvim among a plethora of well-known high-tech firms; membership lists were exchanged on computers; and digital screens were put up to report about voter traffic online.
Yet despite all the advanced technology, among the papers on campaign chairman Aryeh Deri's desk were several amulets. One was black with a symbol of splayed fingers, as is done during the Jewish priestly blessing. On it was written "Blessing and success." Another, in the shape of a gold Hanukkah lamp, had chapters of Psalms, and yet another had verses from the Kabbalah. Even Deri knew that in these elections, he would need a great deal of luck to get satisfactory results.
At 8:00 p.m., two hours before the survey, another few gray hairs sprouted in the party members' beards. The rumors from the surveys spoke of ten seats and even eight. In a room off to the side, Atias pulled out his good-luck charm, a little bag of green tea with spearmint that he always carries during the winter. Lighting a cigarette, he analyzed what was in store coolly. "We have never had an election campaign with so many enemies inside our own armored personnel carrier," he said. "If we can maintain our strength, that will be good enough."
Fortunately for Deri, many Shas members recognize that thesis, so he celebrated the party's having stayed in place — 11 seats, which are considered distant from the big promises that had been made before.
Everyone knew that Deri has returned to Shas as the ace in the hole that would increase the number of seats. At a conference in Jerusalem, he even promised that with him, the party would get 18 to 21 seats. Shas officials already believed that they would be the third-largest party, or even the second-largest, in the 19th Knesset.
Unfortunately for Deri, or perhaps luckily for him, reality hit him in the face, and mostly it wasn't his fault. The social-justice message of "the haves and the have-nots" became irrelevant during Operation Pillar of Defense, and Naftali Bennett, who swept away many right-wing traditional voters, was waiting for him "in the APC" together with Amnon Yitzhak and Haim Amsalem, who together received more than 60,000 votes.
On the other hand, some will say that Deri failed big-time. Deri should have defeated Amsalem, who stole votes only from national-religious and secular people anyway; and an opponent like Amnon Yitzhak, who appears in every election campaign (like Rabbi Kaduri). In addition, acts such as putting Deri, who is identified with the Oslo Accords, into elections that had a right-wing character and ignoring the infiltrators from Africa were responsible for Shas merely maintaining its strength and no more.
But all that is history and Deri, as is his wont, received help from the media — Channel 10's poll spoke of 13 seats, which lifted the smoke-filled Shas headquarters into the sky.
When the clouds cleared and the final results came in, it no longer mattered. The house singer, Benny Elbaz, changed the chant "He is innocent" to "He is great." The confetti was thrown, the victory speeches were made, the smiles dispersed and even Rabbi Ovadia Yosef went back to studying the Talmud.
Joy replaced by danger
But with all due respect to Shas, the real surprise in the haredi sector came from United Torah Judaism, an Ashkenazi party, that won seven seats. Although this result reflects the demographic increase in this population segment, the party feared a decline for two reasons: an internal conflict between two great rabbis that threatened to steal tens of thousands of votes, and a campaign that began fairly late.
But what a well-organized campaign did not accomplish was done by fear of the draft. For many months, thousands of articles meant to sow fear were published in the haredi newspapers, featuring harsh statements such as "Enemies are lurking in ambush for you behind the door to harass you and slash budgets, forcibly draft those who study the Torah, and harm the yeshivot and the schools."
Photographs of military police vans at the doors of well-known yeshivas and the particularly strong leadership of the gaunt, 98-year-old Rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman got another 50,000 voters out to the polls.
But after the smiles of the eve of Election Day the haredim — Ashkenazi and Sephardi alike — woke up to what they saw as an extremely dangerous situation.
Their strength did not match Lapid's, and a coalition without haredim seems more realistic than ever. Worse yet, the subjects that had already been thrown into the air harm what is nearest and dearest to the haredim. Wednesday began with declarations of bearing the burden equally and ended with the statement by Naftali Bennett, a religious man, that this was the time to open discussions on the status quo on matters of religion and state.
What will the haredim do? Before anything, they will explain that bearing their fair share of the burden cannot be imposed by force, but only obtained by consent. Eli Yishai has already prepared the ground, saying, "Lapid's plan is not all that far divorced from reality, and we should discuss it. Each side will have to be flexible."
The big disaster for the Haredim, and, conversely, the State of Israel's great opportunity, may come from Yesh Atid's Rabbi Shai Piron, who identifies with Tzohar; Dr. Aliza Lavie, who identifies with the field of conversion; and members of Habayit Hayehudi, who can bring about a real revolution in matters such as marriage, conversion, the Chief Rabbinate, burial and so on. Over the coming weeks and in the ensuing four years, the haredim will only be able to try to prevent the sweep of events, but not control it.
The slap Amsalem took
In the headquarters of Amsalem's Am Shalem party, the scene was prepared for celebration. Chairs were in place and a stage had been built. Behind the spokesman's station and the microphone was a sign reading that only the brave voted for him. Unfortunately for Amsalem, there were not enough brave people to get him into the Knesset, particularly among the haredi public he had counted on. Amsalem took the loss very hard, fleeing the cameras he had chased for months, and shut himself up at home.
Amsalem's loss is not that of any ordinary politician. It is a very hard personal blow. His family paid a high price for his having established a party that went against the haredi world. He paid a high financial price on top of that, and it is not clear how he will recover from the crisis.