Israel’s religious hard line on rise
Fears of reignited cultural battles
JERUSALEM The formation of Benjamin Netanyahu’s new coalition government has cleared the way for Israel’s ultra- Orthodox parties to return to power after two years in opposition.
This religious resurgence could have deep implications as the ultra-Orthodox seek to reinstate a system of subsidies and preferential treatment that have long angered Israel’s secular majority, potentially setting the stage for a new round of the culture wars that have repeatedly plagued the country.
Under Israel’s system of proportional representation, the ultraOrthodox have enjoyed power and influence far beyond their numbers by providing a string of prime ministers the needed votes to guarantee a majority in parliament.
As a result, they have won automatic exemptions from compulsory military service and large budgets for a separate school system focusing heavily on religious studies while largely not teaching math, English and computer literacy. This system has bred resentment among secular Israelis, who accuse the ultra-Orthodox of shirking their national responsibilities and posing a burden on the economy.
Led by Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party, the outgoing government passed landmark legislation that aimed to gradually incorporate the ultra-Orthodox into the military and boosted their employment figures. Now, with Lapid in the opposition, the Shas and United Torah Judaism parties return to government determined to roll back those measures.
In the coalition negotiations, Netanyahu struck questionable deals with the parties that will cost hundreds of millions of dollars. The quick reversal of policies he previously promoted has drawn a strong rebuke — even from some supporters.
The biggest fallout was Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s dramatic refusal to join the government.
Lieberman said he couldn’t live with concessions on the military draft and continuing generous funding for the ultra-Orthodox education system.
The move leaves Netanyahu with a slim 61-seat majority in the 120-seat parliament, making him even more dependent on his ultraOrthodox allies.
Lapid charged Netanyahu with agreeing to a “clearance sale” of the country for the sake of politics.
“Instead of using taxpayer money for security, education, health and welfare, he is using that money for political bribery,” he said.