“When Netanyahu Is Serious, We Will Also Be Serious”

This past Monday, the Knesset was in an uproar. The atmosphere was akin to that of election season. In the Finance Committee, the Knesset members of the Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu parties seemed to have joined the opposition, as they worked to thwart Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s initiatives. Lapid, for his part, is threatening to take down the government. The prime minister called for a meeting of senior Likud officials to discuss what he termed the “crumbling” of the coalition. Will there be new elections? No one is interested in having them, and it therefore seems almost certain that the government will remain in power. But in politics, nothing is ever certain. No one knows what the next day will bring. Sometimes, the craziest things happen – certainly in the State of Israel, or, to be more precise, in the government of the State of Israel.

 Aryeh Deri has suddenly become more relevant than ever. He heads a party with eleven mandates. During his earlier period in the government, he was a kingmaker, a man who was closer to and more respected by Yitzchok Rabin and Yitzchok Shamir in each of their terms than any of their coalition partners. And this is not to mention his close friendship with Shimon Peres. Has his hour now arrived?

 Deri makes no effort to put on a poker face. In our interview, he states frankly, “Yes, we are interested in entering the government.” Then what is happening now? “For the time being, everything is just talk.”

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In America, I tell Deri, people have heard that the chareidim are not prepared to join a government under Binyomin Netanyahu, even if the coalition disbands and some of his allies abandon him. But people have difficulty understanding this. Why shouldn’t they simply agree to take the place of Yesh Atid in the government and thus resolve all the country’s problems?

 Deri’s answer is very simple: There is no such option. No one has made an appropriate offer. Everything, as he has already said, is “just talk.” In practical terms, nothing is happening. “No such offer has been made,” he stresses. “In any event, not an offer that is real.”

But it has been reported that the prime minister spoke with you and with MKs Gafni and Litzman several times.

“He talked with us. Binyomin Netanyahu is excellent at talking. But there was never a real offer to set up a coalition in place of the current one. I have told the prime minister many times that if he invites me to his office, and I find him there with Bennett from Bayit Yehudi and Lieberman from Yisrael Beiteinu, and the three of them together invite the chareidi parties to join the government, then we will weigh the matter seriously and will bring his suggestion to the Moetzet Chachmei HaTorah. Unfortunately, with the number of mandates he has, Bibi would not be able to assemble a government even if we join with him. His offer is therefore not serious, and that is why we do not pay any attention to it.

“It perturbs me that Netanyahu often uses us as a threat to achieve some goal or to threaten his partners. He isn’t really fighting for our sake. We have seen several times recently that the prime minister has fought valiantly for us, but in the end he made compromises at our expense. This was the case, for instance, with regard to giyur, and particularly with regard to army conscription. He has shown us time and again that he is good to us in words but not in deed. Therefore, I repeat that it is only when we see that there is a real offer for us to join the coalition and a genuine opportunity to build a new government that we will discuss it. For now, it is only talk.”

But if and when it becomes serious, you will discuss such an offer?

“For now, it’s only talk.”

I am asking because just yesterday I heard a number of chareidi Knesset members saying that they would not join a government led by Netanyahu under any circumstances, even if he makes a real offer, in order to take revenge for his treatment of us in recent times, and because he formed a government committed to the exclusion of chareidim. Are you also party to these efforts to take revenge against Netanyahu?

“Not at all. My perspective from the start has been that it is both important and desirable to be part of the government and that we should want to join the coalition. The best way to have an influence is to be part of the coalition. If anyone wants to know what the chareidi parties have done over the years, let him simply look at the difference between the times we were part of the coalition and the times when we were in the opposition. We have been out of the government for less than two years now and look how much we have been harmed. Look how much money chareidi families have lost due to the cuts in their discounts on the arnona real estate tax, the rising cost of food, the financial cuts to the yeshivos and talmudei Torah, and all sorts of other things. Billions have been lost each year. So it is clear that we must be part of the coalition.

“Nevertheless, there is no reason for us to allow ourselves to be degraded and to attend pointless meetings when no one is seriously interested in setting up an alternative government in which we are included. If the prime minister really wanted that, he never would have set up the current government in the first place. When Bennett and Lapid presented him with their “no chareidim” ultimatum, he should have gone back to the president of the country and said, ‘It seems I have the ability to establish a government, and I will have a majority in the Knesset, but it will not include the chareidim, and I am not prepared to do that, because a government based on the exclusion of chareidim is a government that is inherently flawed.’ Had he done that, I promise you that Lapid and Bennett would have given in. But the prime minister, who was elected to that office twice by the chareidi community, repaid us for the favor by betraying us.

“Still and all, we have no interest in revenge. We don’t make calculations based on revenge – not in our dealings with Bennett, with whom we have a very long score to settle, nor in our dealings with Netanyahu or with Lieberman. But since there is no realistic offer on the table today, even though the coalition is falling apart, all that remains is to decide when the elections will take place. We are already in the middle of a process that will lead to elections. That is a fact. You can tell simply by observing what is going on in the Knesset, by sensing the atmosphere and watching how the partners in government speak to each other. In fact, they don’t speak to each other. The only question is if the road to new elections will be a long one or a short one.”

Why wouldn’t it be practical to bring the chareidim into the government? Lapid has 19 mandates and the chareidim have 18. Netanyahu could simply get rid of Lapid and bring in the chareidim in his place.

“Lieberman has promised Lapid to protect him from Netanyahu, and Lapid returns the favor by protecting him in exchange… This sounds sad, but this is our government, and these are the people who are involved in it. That is why it is not realistic.”

The media today has been discussing a new idea: A government could be established without Netanyahu, with Yitzchok Herzog of the Labor party and Yair Lapid each serving as prime minister on a rotating basis.

“Chas vechalilah! We wouldn’t cooperate with Lapid!”

What if the government is established without us?

“Without us, it’s impossible. When they spoke about setting up an alternative coalition without Netanyahu, they counted the chareidim as part of it, and that will never happen.”

From your tone, it seems that you are angry with Netanyahu.

“Of course I am angry. Look how he goes to war for anything that is important to him. He has even fought bitterly against the zero VAT law.” The zero VAT law is Yair Lapid’s flagship piece of legislation, yet in a session of the Knesset Finance Committee this past Monday, the representatives of Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, acting under orders from Netanyahu and Lieberman, prevented it from advancing through the legislative process, even though Lapid has threatened to dismantle the government if the bill is not passed. “Look also at how he fought last week against the Yisrael Hayom law,” Deri adds, referring to the bill designed to cause the pro-Netanyahu newspaper Yisrael Hayom to close. “When something that matters to him is at stake, he knows how to fight. When the centrist members of the Likud party are breathing down his neck, he turns into a lion. He isn’t afraid to fight Lapid, even when Lapid raises the specter of new elections. But when it comes to our rights, we hear a lot of nice words, but in practice we receive nothing.”

You used to be a friend of Lieberman. Is that friendship over?

“I don’t know. Even today, we maintain our friendship, but we have severe differences of opinion.”

Just today, it was reported that he retracted his veto on the inclusion of the chareidi parties in the government.

“Lieberman claims, based on his own calculations, that he needs to make a ‘pact’ with Lapid. Both of them have muddied their relationships with Netanyahu, and that is what gave rise to their alliance. In practice, they protect each other from Netanyahu. In Lieberman’s merit, it can be said that he never completely rejected the chareidim, not even in the current government. What happened this past month is that the deterioration in his relationship with Netanyahu led him to ally himself with Lapid. I don’t agree with him, but that is what happened. What I am saying is that the best thing would be for us to go to elections and let the cards be dealt anew. I have no doubt that the chareidi parties would increase their power if that happened.”

But that isn’t what the polls indicate. They have shown that Shas would go down from 11 seats in the Knesset to eight or nine. Just yesterday, a new poll predicted that Shas would sink to seven mandates. Of course, though, we must keep in mind that ever since the Shas party was founded in 1984, the polls that were correct about the other parties were always off by two to four mandates regarding Shas. But I assume you have heard about yesterday’s poll.

“Forget the polls. The polls have never been able to predict the future, neither for Shas nor for Yahadut HaTorah. I have a different type of ‘polls.’ I feel good about the situation on the ground and I want elections. The elections are the best possible polls.”

Parenthetically, Deri’s political intuition is unmatched. To this day, he has been able to predict how many seats Shas would win in every election, including the party’s historic accomplishment after his criminal conviction and his campaign accusing the establishment of singling him out for persecution, when the Shas party won 17 mandates. He had offered many people the tenth slot on the party list, or a slot even lower down, and they had all declined the offer, dismissing it as unrealistic, although Deri himself had declared that he was prepared to guarantee that even the 15th slot would be filled. So if Deri says he is calm, then that is the truth, although it does not mean that he will rest on his laurels. On the contrary, he will fight as only he knows how to fight.

Aren’t you worried about former minister Moshe Kahlon, who is likely, according to the polls, to win about seven mandates with his new party?

“He is certainly a source of competition for us. He appeals to our constituents. But since he would be taking most of his mandates from Likud and Yesh Atid, I am pleased with that. From my perspective, Kahlon could be a good partner for us, since his perspective is close to ours on matters of tradition. True, the polls show him taking away one or two mandates from Shas, but I can tell you that I will not let those seats go so easily. I will fight for them on the ground, and I believe that he will ultimately not take anything from us. But there is one thing you must remember: It is true that the number of mandates we have is very important, and we must use every vote we have in the Knesset, but the number of mandates is not the only important factor. What matters is also what we do with the mandates, and how much influence we have. The Shas party once had 17 mandates and was not included in the coalition of Ehud Barak, who was the prime minister at the time of those elections. In contrast, the party has achieved its greatest accomplishments with only four or six mandates. It was under those conditions that we established El Hamaayan and the Maayan Hachinuch educational network, creating a revolution in the Sephardic Torah world.”

Do you know who else is davening for Shas to enter the government? The philanthropists of America. They are waiting for the pressure for increased donations to be lessened somewhat.

“I have only words of praise for them. It is a tremendous source of merit for Jewish people to be doing everything in their power to protect and uphold the Torah world in Eretz Yisroel, and to help the poor and the Torah scholars of our country. There is no question that this is a time of distress for Klal Yisroel, and we need those philanthropists’ help today, and we thank them for putting in more effort than ever. Our job is to do everything we can in order to increase our power and become stronger, so that we can also channel resources and funding to the Torah world and let it be able to benefit from the government funding it deserves, and not have to rely exclusively on funding from the Jews of America.”