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HAREDIM WALK in Jerusalem in front of a ‘Men Only’ sign – the role of religion in public life will likely increase due to demographic trends and the high birth rate in the haredi and national-religious sectors..(Photo by: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Did religion and state win the election? - Analysis
Liberman vocally and forthrightly demanded civil marriage “like any normal country.”
Marriage, divorce, Shabbat in the public domain, ultra-Orthodox enlistment, conversion, and the Orthodox monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate. These matters of religion in the Jewish state have for many years been described as “explosive material” in the political realm, to be handled delicately and at arm’s length – if at all.

But as the country has matured, demands to change the septuagenarian “status quo”favoring Orthodox and statist control of such issues have grown louder and more insistent.

Until Tuesday’s election, the conventional wisdom was that although the Jewish Israeli public is largely in favor of liberalizing the country’s approach to religion and state issues, they did not care enough to prioritize these matters at the ballot box.

That notion may now have to be cast aside.

In the April election, the right-wing bloc of Likud, Kulanu, the ultra-Orthodox parties and the religious-Zionist parties garnered 60 seats, while the avowedly secular and right-wing Yisrael Beytenu gained five seats, while the centrist, left-wing and Arab parties took 55 seats.

During the interim between the April election and this week’s poll, Kulanu – a moderate center-right party that stymied some of the legislation advanced by the religious parties in the last government, and which received four seats in April – folded itself into the Likud party.

And during the most recent election campaign, Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman made religion and state concerns his flagship issue with which he mercilessly battered Likud and ultra-Orthodox parties, as well as Blue and White for good measure.

The result: the right-wing bloc went down by five seats to 55, and Yisrael Beytenu went up by four seats for a total of nine Knesset mandates.

Did those moderate center-right voters who voted for Kulanu in April switch allegiances to Yisrael Beytenu? It certainly looks that way.

Any way you look at it, the conclusion appears to be that Liberman’s big gamble of forcing a new election on a platform of “Make Israel Normal Again” precisely over the issue of religion in the public domain is what made the difference in this week’s election.

Yes, Liberman’s campaign was crude, divisive, and frequently unpleasant. And yes, Liberman’s actions do appear to be rather cynical given that he has sat in numerous coalition governments with the ultra-Orthodox and tolerated their successful efforts at blocking any liberalization on religious concerns. But this does not seem to have bothered the electorate in Tuesday’s ballot.

Liberman vocally and forthrightly demanded civil marriage “like any normal country,” vowed to introduce public transportation on Shabbat, repeal the limits on commercial activity on Shabbat imposed by the outgoing government, require ultra-Orthodox schools to teach math and English in return for state funding, and draft ultra-Orthodox men into the army.

All of these policies have widespread support among the general public, but have been stymied by the presence of the ultra-Orthodox and religious-Zionist parties in the recent government.

It seems that significant numbers of voters were attentive to Liberman’s campaign and flocked to his party, having finally tired of the hard-line religious conservatism of the right-wing government.

Tuesday’s election did not produce a clear winner, but it has removed the easy majority enjoyed by the right-wing in recent years, because Liberman has demanded so insistently and vociferously that a liberal national-unity government without the right-wing religious and ultra-Orthodox parties be established.

At the same time, Likud appears to have lost its status as the largest party, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, facing possible indictment later this year, is in the weakest political position of his 10-year tenure and is now unable to dictate political events.

Furthermore, Blue and White’s leadership has embraced the idea of a unity government with Likud but without Netanyahu.

Should the prime minister be forced from power in the coming weeks or months, it would appear to be because a broad swathe of the public finally reached a boiling point over the dictates of the religious and ultra-Orthodox parties on matters of religion and state.
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