Religious pluralism off the table after haredi electoral success - analysis

Strong election showing of Shas and United Torah Judaism will lend the haredi parties heavy political clout in their demands for a High Court override bill and mass haredi exemptions from the army.

Senior United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni adjured the haredi community on April 8th to go out and vote on election day, at the final haredi election rally of the campaign in Jerusalem (photo credit: JEREMY SHARON)
Senior United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni adjured the haredi community on April 8th to go out and vote on election day, at the final haredi election rally of the campaign in Jerusalem
(photo credit: JEREMY SHARON)
The haredi political parties Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ) scored a massive victory on Tuesday night, surpassing expectations by garnering a total of 16 seats between them which will give them heavy political clout in the coming Knesset.
After a campaign which began with some doubting whether or not Shas would even make it over the electoral threshold and various analysts predicting mass defections among UTJ voters to non-haredi parties, the 16 seats taken by the two parties is beyond what either party believed possible.
Although their combined weight in the past two decades has frequently been between 16 and 18 votes, the death of Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the subsequent departure of many religiously traditional voters from Shas and internal divisions among both the Ashkenazi and Sephardi haredi communities took a severe toll.
The natural increase in the haredi population, the dire warnings of danger to the haredi world, an amazing get-out-the-vote campaign and the reduction of internal divisions all led to the impressive results Shas and UTJ garnered on Tuesday.
And this show of strength will be turned into substantive political power in the next government, which will likely include both parties in a right-wing coalition with the hardline conservatives of the Bayit Yehudi, National Union and Otzma parties, who are equally uncompromising on matters of religion and state.
How will this power be translated into policy?
To start with, it will mean that any change to the status quo on religion and state in Israel will be totally impossible.
There will be no way to implement the Western Wall deal for a state-recognized egalitarian section at the site; no way to increase Jewish pluralism in the Jewish state; no way to enact civil marriage or civil unions; no reform to the conversion system to deal with intermarriage either; and no reform to the provision of religious service.
This will affect not only religious life in Israel, but may further aggravate and inflame relations between the Jewish state and the Diaspora – particularly the Jews of North America, which chafes at the lack of equality for progressive Judaism in the country.
IN TERMS of legislation, it seems certain that the haredi parties will now make three central demands in their coalition agreements; a High Court override bill, new legislation for blanket exemptions for haredi yeshiva students and a law imposing greater restrictions on public desecration of Shabbat.
Leaders from UTJ have stated on several occasions that one of their central demands will be a High Court override bill, a demand which is inextricably linked, for them, to the issue of haredi military enlistment.
The High Court of Justice has struck down laws giving blanket exemptions to haredi yeshiva students on three separate occasions, and UTJ in particular sees a High Court override law as the only way to prevent a recurrence of such a scenario.
Speaking at the final haredi election rally on Sunday in Jerusalem, Senior UTJ MK Moshe Gafni said that a High Court override bill would be “an inviolable” demand in its coalition agreement with the new government.
And legislation to reinstate the blanket military service exemptions will be a very pressing matter for the Shas and UTJ, since the High Court has set a deadline for the end of July to pass a new law regulating the status of haredi yeshiva students vis-à-vis the IDF and military service.
UTJ opposed the draft legislation prepared by the Defense Ministry during the last government, a stance which was the proximate cause of the collapse of the coalition, and it seems likely – given their increased power – that the haredi parties will demand further concessions again.
Financial sanctions against yeshivas not meeting enlistment targets, the targets themselves and almost any effective component of the legislation designed to increase haredi military enlistment will likely be scrapped from the law that is eventually passed.
Shas and UTJ will also demand that greater restrictions are placed on the public desecration of Shabbat, such as infrastructure construction and maintenance, commerce and shopping.
The government came close to collapsing over this issue due to the severe pressure haredi activists and the haredi online media placed on Shas and UTJ in the last two years, and they will be anxious to rid themselves of this stress.
Shas and UTJ have been incredibly loyal to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he has to them, a partnership which has prospered because the haredi parties care so much about religious matters and the prime minister so little.
Given the fact that Netanyahu will not be able to form a coalition without them, the haredi parties are likely to get much, if not all, of what they demand in the next government.