Religion and politics stop at the water’s edge - analysis

Ultimately, it was the allure of a great slice of the Knesset pie that convinced all sides they needed to come together despite their ideological differences.

July 29, 2019 00:17
3 minute read.
Religion and politics stop at the water’s edge - analysis

Head of New Right party Ayelet Shaked . (photo credit: AVRAHAM SASSONI)

The imminent marriage of convenience between New Right and the right-wing religious parties proves beyond a doubt that politics in Israel is currently trouncing principle.

Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked founded the New Right to promote the cooperation and unity of religious and secular Israelis on the right wing. Their idea was to provide a home for secular right-wing voters and liberal religious-Zionist voters, and for Bennett and Shaked to rid themselves of the religiously conservative, hardline politicians of Bayit Yehudi and National Union which advocate against LGBTs, advance policies against the progressive Jewish denominations, and back the Chief Rabbinate’s control over religious life.

But in Israel, politics make strange bedfellows.

Bennett either declined to stand up for religious liberalism or was blocked by others in his party over elections for the chief rabbis, reform to the conversion system, and the Western Wall agreement for the Reform and Conservative movements.

At the same time, the political and rabbinic leaders of the religious-Zionist, right-wing parties were of the opinion that Bennett’s departure was good riddance to bad rubbish.

Despite his previous electoral success, Bennett had long been accused of being soft on religious issues by many rabbis in the sector, particularly on its hardline wing, of not listening to rabbis, and of being too accommodating to the progressive denominations, and having addressed a conference of the Conservative Movement in the Knesset.

On Sunday however, following long and tumultuous sessions of horse trading over the last few weeks, New Right was set to rejoin the religious hardliners who they had previously distanced themselves from.

Even more perplexing, they were entertaining widening their alliance to encompass the even more religiously conservative Kahanists of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party.

Moreover, those same religious hardliners were welcoming a secular woman to head a union of religious parties.

Several weeks ago, three of the most senior rabbis in the conservative wing of the national-religious community, including Chief Rabbi of Safed Shmuel Eliyahu, even published a letter demanding that the head of the list be religious, a clear effort to prevent Shaked taking the number one spot.

Ultimately, it was the allure of a great slice of the Knesset pie that convinced all sides they needed to come together despite their ideological differences.

Numerous polls showed that the majority of right-wing voters greatly preferred Shaked to any other candidate to lead a united bloc of right-wing parties, and that with her at the head their joint list would garner more seats.

Additionally, current polls show Bayit Yehudi and National Union, which have already agreed to jointly run, barely crossing the 3.25% electoral threshold.

Despite being secular, ironically, Shaked is viewed by the political and rabbinic leadership of the conservative wing of the religious-Zionist movement as less problematic on issues of religion and state than the religious, albeit liberal, Bennett.

Unlike Bennett, Shaked has said in the past that she did not enter politics to confront the country’s many religious problems. Nor has she ever shown any inclination to advocate or advance religious liberalism and pluralism.

For Shaked and Bennett, the decision to unite with the religious parties was simply a matter of electoral math.

They dare not risk a repeat of the catastrophe of the last elections when the two ministers were dramatically turfed out of the Knesset after New Right failed to pass the electoral threshold.

Moreover, Shaked and Bennett were widely denounced by the right-wing. The votes wasted on them were seen as the reason a right-wing government was not established.

Bayit Yehudi and National Union are also looking nervously over their shoulders at the electoral threshold. And with Otzma, Moshe Feiglin and a new ultra-religious party all vying for the same votes, the political logic of a union with New Right was inescapable.

Ultimately, matters of principle have stopped at the water’s edge in this election.

As France’s King Louis XIV so famously declared, Après mois, le déluge.

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