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Jewish Journal

Israel’s Great Divide

The prime minister-elect wrangles with the powerful Sephardic fervently Orthodox party

by David Landau

May 27, 1999 | 8:00 pm

As the election dust settles and coalition-building tensions grow, religion is emerging as the single most dominant factor in Israel's current political cataclysm.

More than the peace process, more than the economy and unemployment, certainly more than the Sephardi-Ashkenazi divide, the religious-secular conflict proved a key element in the way hundreds of thousands of Israelis chose to vote.

And it continues to be a key element in the way Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak is shaping his new government.

As they were in the elections, pro-Orthodox and anti-Orthodox sentiments are vying for dominance in Barak's search for a workable governing coalition.

Some observers prefer to sidestep the seemingly self-evident conclusion that the 17 seats the fervently Orthodox Shas Party won in last week's election --up from 10 in the outgoing Knesset -- signify a mass religious revival sweeping a sizable sector in Israeli society.

Indeed, the other haredi, or fervently Orthodox, grouping -- the United Torah Judaism bloc --also did well last week, increasing its Knesset representation from four to five seats.

These observers, either unwilling to face this reality or uncomfortable with it, look for social and economic factors to help explain the meteoric success of Shas, which was founded barely 15 years ago.

They cite ethnic sentiments, cultural resentments, a sense of economic discrimination.

To be sure, Shas has long played to pocketbook issues among its predominantly Sephardi following. Its ongoing funding of social support and welfare agencies had much to do with the 400,000 votes it won last week.

Without doubt, the sentiments and resentments these observers ascribe to the party's followers are present in Shas strongholds--in the development towns in the south and far north of the country, and in the poorer suburbs of Tel Aviv and in Jerusalem, where Shas emerged as the largest party.

The resentments and ethnic assertiveness were undeniably heightened, moreover, by the conviction of Shas leader Aryeh Deri in March for bribery --a setback that the party turned into a campaign-winning advantage by brazenly attacking the verdict, the court and the entire judicial system as biased and elitist.

In the weeks before the election, Shas distributed 250,000 copies of a 72-minute videotape that minutely dissected and assailed the court verdict.

But, as a leading commentator on the Israeli religious world, Dov Elboim, noted in the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot last weekend, after all those incontrovertible factors are taken into account they still cannot supplant religious revivalism as the strongest single reason for Shas' success.

This does not mean that every Shas voter is Orthodox, or even traditional, in his or her personal religious practice.

But it does seem to clearly indicate that a new or renewed affinity for religion and religious practice is taking hold of Shas' still-growing following --the many hundreds of thousands of Sephardim who do not unequivocally identify as secularists.

By the same token, and more so than in any previous election, hundreds of thousands of avowedly secularist Israelis voted last week specifically in response to the growth and aggressiveness of Shas, which they see as a threat to Israel's democracy.

For example, the showing of the left-wing Meretz Party, which increased its Knesset representation to 10 from nine seats, can be ascribed in some measure to that party's firm stand against what it sees as haredi exploitation of the system: securing draft exemptions, taking welfare payments and getting state financing for the yeshiva networks.

Moreover, the shift in the support of the Russian immigrant community from outgoing Premier Benjamin Netanyahu to Barak is ascribed unanimously by political observers to the vigorous campaign launched by the immigrant rights Yisrael Ba'Aliyah Party against Shas' control of the key Interior Ministry.

Netanyahu was seen by the Russians as in the thrall of Shas and the other Orthodox parties.

Barak's promises not to "kowtow to extremists" fell on willing ears.

Now, those same angry and divisive considerations that motivated the various groups of voters are troubling the man elected by a landslide to serve as the next premier.

The question of whether Barak will invite Shas into his coalition has been the focus of political speculation almost since the moment the polling stations closed and the television exit polls pronounced the demise of the Netanyahu government.

Because of the poor showing of his own One Israel faction, which ended up with only 26 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, Barak will need either Shas or the Likud, which has 19 seats -- or both parties --to join him and ensure a stable government.

Barak's office was inundated with faxes, phone calls and e-mails this week from supporters around the country, pleading with him either to take in or shut out Shas from his government.

The media have been similarly divided.

Staunchly dovish columnists are veritably begging the new premier to ally with Likud, previously the target of their most withering verbal fusillades.

Peace with the Palestinians can wait, they contend. First Israel must put its own house in order.

Others, staunchly secularist, vigorously advocate an alliance with Shas, a movement they previously excoriated, with no less vigor, as a threat to the very existence of a democratic Israel.

The stalled peace process, this latter group argues, is the more urgent and existential threat. With Barak's election victory, the window of opportunity for moving ahead with negotiations has opened again. Shas and democracy, they say, can wait.

Barak's pre-election pledges and post-election pronouncements emphasize his dilemma rather than ease it.

He is strongly committed to the rule of law --and therefore insists that the convicted Deri remove himself, not just formally but also in practice, from the leadership of Shas.

But he is as strongly committed to creating a wide and inclusive government.

"I will be everyone's prime minister," he has proclaimed repeatedly since election night. "Of those who voted for me and those who opposed me."

Barak's first public appearance on the morning after the election was a visit to the Western Wall -- a symbolic step that his political mentor, Yitzhak Rabin, pointedly declined to take when he was first elected prime minister in 1974.

On Sunday, Barak paid a formal call on the two chief rabbis to receive their blessing and encouragement for the tasks now facing him.

The Knesset election results truly reflect the fractured and fragmented state of Israeli society.

But Barak's convincing victory in the prime ministerial race gives him the moral authority, if not the parliamentary strength, to launch a healing process.

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