A Fork in the Road


In 1949, David Ben Gurion, Israel's first Prime Minister, had to find a way to avoid a split within Israeli society, between the religious and secular Jews for the sake of focusing the country's energies into absorbing the Jewish refugees coming from the DP camps of Europe as well as the Arab world. There was no clear way to reach a compromise, so he developed a way to deal with the differences which some have nicknamed “regularization”.

The process of “Regularization” involved naming members of political parties with diametrically opposite positions on certain issues, to bureaucratic or government offices where they had to deal with those issues on a daily basis. The theory was that once people are faced with solving problem, some creative solution bypassing the differences would emerge. In this way, Ben Gurion was able to bring together a coalition of secular and religious parties to address the country's pressing needs.

Ben Gurion eventually left public life and some years later he died. The idea of “regularization”, however, persisted and evolved. Over the years, religious parties shared with secular ones the task of shaping Israel's educational, Welfare and even legal systems. As time went by, it became evident that the religious parties, albeit a minority, came to function in Israeli politics as the power brokers. The votes of their Knesset members became the deciding factor in which party could or could not form a stable coalition to govern the country. From that position of strength their influence over many areas of Israeli life grew. And as a consequence, so did the resentment of the mostly secular (“Hiloni”) population toward the religious segments of Israeli society.

Over the years, the religious parties secured exception from military service for Yeshivah students, gained great influence over the National Register (in which people are defined as Jews or not) and over the welfare system which benefited largely the Ultra Orthodox population. And Israeli politicians, rather than question this state of affairs, used it ensure their own political gains. As a result, the deep divide between secular and religious Israelis which Ben Gurion feared so much grew and deepen over the years. Eventually, that divide also affected the relationship between Israel and the liberal branches of the American Jewish community which saw themselves delegitimized once and again by the Ultra Orthodox monopoly on religious authority in the Jewish state.

The recent Israeli elections open for the first time in many years a unique opportunity to form a government coalition in which the religious parties will not necessarily hold the deciding votes in the Knesset. In order to form such a coalition, Netanyahu might have to move out of his comfort zone. Based on the electoral results, that coalition would have Netanyahu's Likud party on the right end of the secular coalition with Bayit HaYehudi (Bennett) and Yesh Atid (Lapid) to his left. This configuration would more likely make Lapid the mediator instead of Netanyahu. What would Netanyahu win from such arrangement?

While Bibi has accepted the concept of a two State solution and he is willing to resume negotiations with the Palestinians to that effect, he is very much in a minority within his own party on this score. At the same time, Netanyahu has called for an end to religious exceptions from National Service and used during the campaign a code phrase: “equal burden”. A coalition in which the religious parties are weakened if present at all would allow him to push this point of his agenda.


But such a move as undoing the privileges that the Ultra Orthodox community has taken for granted since Israel's independence would alienate one of Netanyahu's key constituencies, and resuming negotiations would undercut his support among the activist settlers' population, another one of Likud's key supporters. But it can be done and it was done before in far less favorable political circumstances. Rabin pushed for the Oslo Agreements in spite of religious opposition (a move that cost him his life); Sharon broke with the settlers' to implement the unilateral withdrawal of Gaza (destabilizing his government). Leaving aside whether we personally agree or disagree with the choices Sharon and Rabin made, they proved that those decisions, unthinkable juts a few years earlier, were possible.

Netanyahu is in a far better political position than Rabin or Sharon. With Yesh Atid and Israel Beyteinu in his corner he would only need to bring in Kadima or HaTnuah (Tzipi Livni) to gain the minimum necessary majority. Even if he decides to include one of the religious parties to fortify his position, the religious parties would not be able to bring down the government.

A move to end Ultra Orthodox privileges would certainly alienate part of the Likud power base, but it would also open the possibility of healing the growing alienation of American Jews. Netanyahu can choose to go the beaten path and form an administration with the ultra orthodox as his main partners, or he might choose to break a new path and define a new direction. The coming couple of weeks will tell us what his choice is...


Add Comment