Israel: Religion and the Secular State
January 27, 1999

The Conversion Issue
Reform & Conservative Jews on Religious Councils
Opening Kibbutz Stores on the Sabbath
Drafting Yeshiva Students
Political Implications

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Political Implications

Over the last decade, in matters of religion and state, the government - Netanyahu's and its predecessors - had ample warning that unless the Knesset codified the established practices, the courts would eventually rule in ways that would upset the Orthodox establishment. But despite pressure from religious parties, governments have been largely unable to pass legislation to reinforce the status quo. Many of the coalition's secular members oppose their Orthodox colleagues push for religious legislation, and there is widespread concern about upsetting relations with the largely non-Orthodox Diaspora.

It is unlikely that the present lame-duck Knesset will be able to pass legislation that will satisfy Orthodox parties. As the committee vote on the religious councils shows, Netanyahu's secular coalition partners – such as the Third Way, Yisrael Ba'aliya and Tzomet – could only be pressured when the fate of the coalition rested on their acquiescence to religious demands. Now that this Knesset has voted to dissolve there is nothing to prevent these three parties from voting their conscience against religious coercion.

The courts have now put all these issues to the fore on the eve of the elections for prime minister and the 15th Knesset. While the proponents of the direct elections law instituted before the 1996 elections hoped that the new system would eliminate interest-based maneuver by potential coalition partners, the real change is that the horse trading now goes on before the elections as well as afterwards, as candidates vie for the endorsement of key figures in key sectors, all with their own legislative agendas. The wholesale Orthodox endorsement of Netanyahu in the 1996 election was an important factor in his victory. In return, Netanyahu had to agree to support the agenda of these Orthodox parties.

In this current campaign, Netanyahu and some of his rivals are likely to compete in trying to attract Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox voters. Of the four contenders who have declared so far, only Labor Party chairman Ehud Barak seems to have written off the ultra-Orthodox voters as well as considerable parts of the National Religious Party faithful. During this Knesset, Barak introduced legislation for the induction of yeshiva students into the Israel Defense Forces, with deferments to be granted only to a very limited number of outstanding scholars. In late December Barak and nearly all the Labor MKs voted "no" on the High Court "bypass bill" on religious councils.

MK Benny Begin has already received the endorsement of former chief rabbi Avraham Shapiro who commands the respect of the religious settler community. The positioning of the as of yet unnamed "centrist party" is unclear. On the one hand, the recent placement in the number one spot of former Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, who has close relations with Sephardic rabbinic authorities, may engender greater support from the large component of religiously traditional Sephardic voters. However the party is considered at a disadvantage because of the inclusion the staunchly secular former Tel Aviv Mayor Roni Milo. This may explain Mordechai’s vote on the religious council issue.

Then there is always the morning after: No matter who wins the premiership, a coalition will need to be formed. Even Ehud Barak would probably try to include the relatively dovish Shas party into a coalition in order to advance the peace process. And no matter who becomes prime minister, the Orthodox parties will make demands to restore the protective shell of the status quo through legislation.

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2001 Anti-Defamation League