Exclusive interview
Beyond the Controversy: Who are Ha'am Itanu?

Hareidim, religious-Zionists and 'traditional' Jews championing Jewish identity and social justice - this is more than just Shas 2.0.

Ari Soffer ,

Eli Yishai's new party is breaking the mold
Eli Yishai's new party is breaking the mold
Yaakov Naumi/Flash 90

The past several days have been filled with headlines concerning the Yachad - Ha'am Itanu party. Headed by former Shas chairman Eli Yishai - who broke away from the hareidi-Sephardic party in acrimony following a very public falling-out with its leader Aryeh Deri - it has remained in the media spotlight since its founding just 15 days ago.

There were the attacks against Yishai by Aryeh Deri, which drew audible murmurs of discontent and discomfort by many Shasniks, particularly since it was in breach of an unofficial agreement between the parties not to attack one another. Ha'am Itanu's very first press conference was disrupted by extremist Shas supporters, one of whom was arrested as a result. There have even been threats to harm Eli Yishai.

Then, it all erupted. The release of explosive recordings showing former Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef savaging Deri - calling him a "wicked" thief and a bribe-taker, and contradicting Deri's claim that he had nothing to do with the party's controversial decision to support the disastrous Oslo Accords - and openly voicing his preference for Yishai, took the controversy to a whole new level. The carefully choreographed "resignation" of Aryeh Deri (which is still playing out), and yesterday's equally staged-managed drama at Rabbi Yosef's graveside show just how concerned Shas's leadership are about the potential fallout from the videos. And according to sources, there are many more hours of footage still to be released.

But all the controversy aside, just who are the Ha'am Itanu party? Is this just a personal split? Are they just another Shas, albeit with a more "nationalist", or Zionist flavor? Or perhaps a more general "hareidi-Zionist party"? Or something else entirely? What do they stand for and what is their platform?

To find out, I met with the party's number two, Yoni Chetboun, at his Jerusalem offices and campaign headquarters.

Chetboun is no stranger to controversy himself. A former Jewish Home MK, he was sternly disciplined by the faction for breaking party discipline and voting against the Enlistment Law to draft hareidim into the army. Then, on the same day as Yishai's new party was declared, he announced his sudden resignation from the Jewish Home to join Yishai's new faction.

His offices are abuzz with energy, and filled with a palpable sense of nervous excitement. A large picture of "Maran" - the honorific title given to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef by his many admirers and followers - looks down on the organized chaos below, which includes a large pile of newspapers. Poignantly, each one features a picture of Aryeh Deri prominently on the front cover.

Ha'am Itanu head Eli Yishai (L) with his number two, Yoni Chetboun Office of Yoni Chetboun

But apart from that, it is immediately clear that this is not just Shas 2.0. For a start, Chetboun's campaign team is made up of a mixture of "knitted kippa" religious-Zionists and traditional Sephardic Jews - not a black hat in sight.

Chetboun himself is the same as always: deeply focused, highly passionate. But it was impossible to miss the sense of renewed purpose in a man whose short political career so far has been a somewhat conflicted one. 

In our conversation below, he laid out for me the principles and character - and some of the policies - of the Yachad - Ha'am Itanu party. 

In a nutshell, how would you define the Yachad - Ha'am Itanu party?

It's something that represents a historic opportunity. For the first time in the history of the State of Israel there are national-religious, or religious-Zionists, standing together with hareidim and members of the "traditional" Israeli public. It's never happened before.

It's a movement which began decades ago. There are many hareidim who both love the State of Israel and also understand the importance of Torah study; and there are also religious-Zionists who - especially in the past two years - understand that the yeshiva students are very important for the security of the State of Israel.

Now is the time to forge this movement as a political force. 

During the past two years, we all saw the wave of anti-religious legislation. Things which were always left to the status-quo, like the structure of the Jewish family, the status of the chief rabbis, conversion - things that were always understood as the realm of the rabbis - now something has changed. Dozens of bills and laws - especially from the Yesh Atid party - showed that we have to have a large and strong religious party for whom Jewish identity is the central cause.

Everyone talks about the same few critical issues for Israel: economic issues, security, the Arab-Israeli conflict. But the past two years show that now more than ever the Israeli public is talking about Jewish identity. I think it's normal; after 66 years the Jewish people want to understand: who are we?

It's something which comes up every so often, isn't it - the question of mi yehudi (who is a Jew), etc.?

Yes. In fact, these very elections came as a result of the Jewish state bill! If someone really wants to understand what these elections are about, they're about Jewish identity.

But unfortunately, we saw that the Jewish Home party... wants to be a more general right-wing party, not a "religious" party.

I respect that. I led a discussion within the party over the past three years over who we are, what are our values, are we religious-Zionist or not - but they took a decision.

But they still are a religious-Zionist party, are they not? Most of their MKs will still be religious, and their constitution makes it clear that the party's ideology is religious-Zionist, even if they'll also have other types of people standing as MKs.

The fact is that in these primaries there are both religious and irreligious, Jewish and non-Jewish - Druze, Muslims [there is currently only one Muslim candidate - ed.] - all standing... It shows that the aim, the goal in the long- and middle-term is to replace the Likud (in leading the Right camp). 

And I respect that! But the past two years showed that we have to have within the structure of Israeli politics a strong religious party.

But not just another "religious party" - one which actually respects the country, respects the State of Israel, respects Zionism, respects both Torah study and the Israeli soldiers at the same time, 

Of course there are also the social issues. The Right bloc is losing seats - whether to (Moshe) Kahlon, or Shas, who are willing to join a Labor government, and even to the Labor party itself - because unfortunately the right-wing parties aren't really dealing with social issues enough.

Now is the time for traditional, religious and hareidi Jews - Ashkenazim and Sephardim - who love this country and understand the importance of Torah study and the army equally, to unite.

For me, it's really a historic moment. When I wake up in the morning I understand that I am one of the founders of a political force that hasn't ever existed before in the State of Israel.

I'd just like to take us back for a moment to the social issues you briefly referred to - are these also going to figure prominently in your party's campaign?

Jewish identity is of course crucial, but the social issues Israel is facing are also extremely important.

People who live in the south - Dimona, Ofakim, etc. - and in the north, in places like Kiryat Shmona and also South Tel Aviv... we need to take care of the issues which matter to them and impact on their daily lives.

But at the same time these people will know that they can also vote for a party on the Right - which opposes a two-state solution, and which will support a prime minister from the Right. 

Previously, the "religious parties," the hareidim, have always been in the "center" - sometimes they support the Left, sometimes the Right. You never know with them...

I'm not sure it's so much a question of "center" as it is of who can offer them the largest budgets...

Yes, it's more "practical" (as opposed to ideological) in that sense.

And you're saying you aren't a party for any particular sector, whether the hareidim or Sephardim or Ashkenazim?

Right, we are an ideological party.

God-willing in this election we will empower the Right bloc. We will bring (Knesset) seats that the Jewish Home can't bring, because we have more of an emphasis on religious and social issues. And we will also gain votes which Likud can't get - Netanyahu is seen as a very staunch capitalist, and they aren't so sensitive to social issues.

We'll also take seats from Kahlon, who is championing social justice but at the same time moving leftwards, talking about two-states, etc.

Let's talk about you personally for a second. Some people will look at you, someone who has served in the army...

As a Major in the army...

Right, and yet you seem to be saying that you have more in common with Eli Yishai than you do with Naftali Bennett. How does that work?

(Laughs) Eli Yishai is a leader who loves the country, who understands that every person, every student, who doesn't have the ability to learn Torah from the morning to the evening has to go to the army and protect the country. He's also a person whose record is totally clean (of corruption) - they can't find anything on him.

Both of us understand that the past two years have opened an historic opportunity to forge a united, strong Jewish identity in Israel.

Of course I have nothing against Bennett - we are friends - but as a Major in the army, as a person who learned Torah in yeshiva, as a person who wants to strengthen our identity and our right to live everywhere in Eretz Yisrael, I saw that now is the time to unite all the sectors of the religious community in particular into one force.

I'd also like to add - since I'm sure it will be one of your questions - that when I voted against the Draft Bill my motivation was that if you want to make changes in Israel, it has to be a (gradual) process...

So you agree that there has to be an increase in hareidi participation in the army and the workforce...?

In my view it's like this: people, students, who learn Torah morning to evening - I don't have a problem with them. Let them learn. Because I understand that the spiritual strength of Israel comes from Torah study. But, for me, it's a Mitzvah [Torah Commandment -ed.], a privilege to serve in the army. I was an officer - I lost many friends...  

Now is the time to respect both sectors: (for those in the army) to respect those learning Torah full-time, and those (hareidim) learning Torah need to start respecting the soldiers as well.

And Eli Yishai thinks the same way?

Eli Yishai has spoken about this in public over the last decade. He always said that people not genuinely learning Torah full-time should enlist in the army.

It's nothing new though for some within the hareidi community to say that those "who can't learn" should go to the army. But religious-Zionists see going to the army as an ideal, not something you only do if you "can't handle" learning Torah full-time. And you obviously believe that as well - as you said, you didn't enlist because you "couldn't learn," but because you believe it's a Mitzvah. 

So when it comes to policy - equal army service, or increasing hareidi employment rates - what will be Ha'am Itanu's direction?

We are for all of those things - but not by forcing anyone. Social norms like that, which have existed for 60 years in Israel, cannot be changed by force. 

We will empower those who want to go to the army - hareidi, religious-Zionist, everyone - and we will also empower those genuinely learning Torah full-time.

I believe this is a combination that the Israeli public has been waiting for for a long time. Those who have the ability to learn Torah and become a real talmid chacham [Torah scholar] and strengthen the country's religious identity should be supported in doing so.

In terms of legislation and the makeup of the party list: obviously you haven't yet released your list of candidates, but can you give me any idea of the kind of people who will be running apart from yourself and Eli Yishai?

Of course I can't talk about people or names because it's all still under discussion. But I can talk about the general setup. It's going to be both religious-Zionists and hareidim; Sephardim and Ashkenazim. We all understand that now is the time to come together.

So we're not talking about a "Shas B" then...

No, not at all! It's something completely different.

By the way, there is also a large sector who define themselves as chozrei bitshuva (newly religious). According to the National Bureau of Statistics there are some 300,000 people in Israel who identify as chozrei bitshuva - not hareidi, not religious-Zionist, but chozrei bitshuva.

Just yesterday for example I met a man who wasn't religious, and is now a Breslev hassid - but he still serves in Shayetet 13 [elite naval unit]. And he doesn't identify as either hareidi or religious-Zionist. 

You'll find a significant number of people among the Anglo community here in particular who can relate. They may have become more religious via "hareidi" institutions, wear a black hat, take conservative stances on religious issues and all the rest - but at the same time they also love the State of Israel and feel strongly Zionist...

Yes, and this is a sector we really want to represent.

I spent a few days recently in the US, and what I saw was that while in Israel we love to make distinctions - there's a big black kippa, a small black kippa, a knitted kippa in one color, a knitted kippa in another color - but when you go abroad, to the US or even France where I grew up, these divisions mostly don't exist.

So we want to take this model - from people who came to Israel from London, New York, wherever, who don't like these divisions.

You can love the country and love Torah study at the same time.

Again, this is definitely something many olim will have experienced. It can be a big shock for them to come and suddenly be forced to decide in which particular niche they fit. So many will be very encouraged to hear a party speaking like this. But is it really practical? Is it realistic to achieve that kind of unity in Israeli society in the long-term?

I think that the initiative isn't Yoni Chetboun's or Eli Yishai's - it's something we feel on the ground, talking to people. People are tired of the divisions, of hating this sector or that. And as I said at the start, in the past decade or so there is a movement within both the hareidi and religious-Zionist public to be more united. We are expressing that desire.

But what about the hilonim (secular public)? You criticized the Jewish Home for including more irreligious candidates, but aren't they part of Israeli society too?

Yes, of course. Look, last week I was walking through Jerusalem and a taxi driver started shouting at me "Yachad! Ha'am Itanu! Kol hakavod! Good luck!"

He wasn't wearing a kippa on his head - but there are many Israelis like him who might not be religious on a personal level, but they still want in the next Knesset a strong religious party that will strengthen the country and strengthen the Torah, and which will also take up social issues like poverty and other issues that the right-wing parties have been neglecting.

Let's get down to the nitty-gritty now. In terms of legislation - I imagine given what you've said that you support the Jewish State bill, but are there any other policies, any other specific pieces of legislation, that you will be pushing?

Yes, I'll give you two examples.

One is to empower the Chief Rabbinate. In the last two years they've been hurt. During that time everyone was saying "the problem with the State of Israel is the chief rabbis! The problem is the batei din [religious courts - ed.]!" And of course there are hundreds of thousands of Israelis who want the Chief Rabbinate to be more friendly, accessible and efficient.

But amid all that criticism, Tzipi Livni did all she could to weaken the institution and prevent it from doing its job! You know that the budgets for batei din are now lower than they've ever been since 1948?

So there are thousands of couples for example with problems which need addressing - and specifically now there isn't the budget to do so!

The second issue is the cost of living crisis.

There are thousands of poor families who since the decision six years ago to drastically shrink the budget for public housing are in a terrible situation. We want to expand that budget again, while at the same time to give people the ability to earn and support themselves. Of course it's not just a question of the country giving housing and that's it - on one hand we must give the disadvantaged the ability simply to live and overcome all the obstacles they face, and then on the other they must have the option to make their own lives better.

But now things are worse than ever for many, particularly large families. Child benefits have been drastically cut, and the last government hurt thousands of families who relied on those benefits just to get by. We want to restore that budget as well.

OK, so more social benefits and government spending to alleviate poverty. But crucially, you mention empowering people to lift themselves out of poverty. Everyone is saying that, but no one is actually offering any tangible solutions. How do you do that?

There is no one single solution. But for me, the fundamental problem is the neo-liberal concept of basically saying, let people fend for themselves while the state just watches from the sidelines.

The key word is "regulation." You must have a free market of course - I'm not saying I'm against capitalism - but the state has to be involved where there are obstacles for some people, when a family finds itself without the ability to even feed itself.

When you demand a poor family to go to work, but you then pull the rug from under their feet and now they can't even afford milk for their children, it traps them in a cycle.

And then there's also the issue of aliyah, which as chairman of the Knesset Caucus for Olim from France I know that this (high cost of living) is an issue for olim as well!

In Israel, everyone thinks olim must all be so rich, because they came from "abroad"...

If only...

Right. And in reality it's not true of course. Among them you have people from the middle class, working class, and they all need to be helped - they're struggling too.

When I talk about the problems in Netivot or Dimona, many of the people struggling there are olim. There are mental health issues, unemployment, education - many children for example are dropping out of the formal education system.

My very last question: You mentioned right at the start that you're against a two-state solution - but does your party have an alternative vision? What is your solution? 

The solution is very simple: between the river and the sea there will be one state, Israel, with a Jewish majority and an Arab minority. 

First of all we have to internalize that fact - that there will only be one state here. 

But I also understand that there are Arabs who live in Judea and Samaria. But you know, 20 years ago when I was a child we bought food in Kalkilya, 15 minutes from Kfar Saba, and there weren't the problems we see today - there was basically coexistence. The Arabs understood that Israel is a Jewish state, but they were happy because their economic situation was improving and stable.

There's a big gap between the Arab people in Judea and Samaria, and their leadership, you know...

Right, but in terms of a political solution, what are you suggesting? What happens to their status? Take for example Naftali Bennett's plan to annex Area C and leave A and B under autonomous Palestinian rule - are you suggesting that kind of arrangement?

For us the annexation of Judea and Samaria is something on the table, but it has to be done step-by-step, not at one go. 

In terms of the status of the Arabs in Judea and Samaria: I'm not afraid of that. I think we need to return to the status before the Oslo Accords - they can live their own lives, not political autonomy per se, but with all their personal rights, the right to work in Israel, the right to engage in commerce... etc. But not the ability to vote.

Israel is a Jewish state, and Judea and Samaria belong to the State of Israel. But we have, as a state, an obligation to give them all the facilities and ability to live a normal life.