Powerful players for years, Israel’s chareidi parties must now reckon with a new force ushered in by voters.
Centrist Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party came a surprise second in Tuesday’s parliamentary election, usurping Shas and United Torah Judaism from their long-standing role of kingmakers in coalition negotiations.
Voted in by a frustrated middle-class, Yesh Atid promised to enact an “equal sharing of the burden” — code for curtailing both welfare benefits given to chareidi families and an exemption from military service offered to their menfolk.
Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu’s rightist Likud-Beitenu party led the field in the election, but he lost a quarter of his parliamentary seats in the process, making it almost impossible for him to ignore the clamor of the center.
“There is a famous joke we (tell) in Israel,” outgoing Defense Minister Ehud Barak told CNN in an interview.”One third of the country wakes up to work, one third is paying taxes, and one third is serving in the (army) reserves. Unfortunately it is the same one third. This one third told the government yesterday ‘That is it’,” he said.
Chareidim make up roughly 10 percent of the Israeli population.
Successive coalition governments have had to rely for survival on the chareidi parties, which in turn exacted state benefits to safeguard their distinctive lifestyle.
The ultra-Orthodox bloc helped bring stability to Netanyahu’s last government and he would surely like them back on board this time, so long as he can find a compromise deal.
Ironically, Tuesday’s election saw the chareidi parties win 18 seats, one more than in 2009 — a reflection of their growing demographic weight with a fertility rate that is some three times higher than that of other Israeli Jews.
Despite this gain, Ofer Kenig, a political scientist from The Israel Democracy Institute, said the ultra-Orthodox parties had a much reduced bargaining position than before.
“There is a growing recognition among the charedim too that the current situation cannot continue for much longer,” Kenig said, referring to the charedi exemptions from military service.
However, the head of the charedi party United Torah Judaism, Israel Eichler, stoutly defended their privileges on Thursday, telling Israel Radio that his people had a sacred task, as essential to Israel as that carried out by the army.
“The burden is to maintain a Jewish state in Israel, which starts and ends with studying the Torah. There is a need for an army here, but if there is no Torah then there is no need for a state and therefore no need for the military,” he said.
Eli Yishai, a leader of Shas and the outgoing interior minister, hinted that a compromise could be found.
“If the prime minister wants a coalition with Shas … it will be difficult but doable. If we all want it, we can sit together, be more flexible and set up a government,” he said.
Read more at REUTERS.