Opinion | An Israeli ‘Unity Government’ Cannot Exclude Religious Parties

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By Alex Traiman

Try as some politicians might to make the current Israeli election about rifts between secular and religious Israelis, both the April and September polls were about a single issue: whether Benjamin Netanyahu will continue to serve as prime minister.

As part of a strategy to hurt Netanyahu and his preferred coalition partners, secular opponents have taken aim at the politics of haredi Orthodox parties, while calling for a “secular unity government.”

Since his foray into politics from his chair as a TV presenter, Yair Lapid has been working to advance an anti-religious agenda, just as his father, Tommy Lapid, did when he led the Shinui Party to 15 seats in 2003. The younger Lapid, running on a similar agenda, secured 19 seats in 2013 as head of Yesh Atid, but fell to 11 seats in 2015 following a brief stint as finance minister.

Today, Lapid is co-leader of the Blue and White Party and, according to the terms of a conditional rotational agreement he signed with Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, potentially a prime minister-in-waiting.

Blue and White, a technical alliance between Yesh Atid, Gantz’s Resilience Party and the Telem Party under Moshe Ya’alon, was created with one goal in mind: to defeat Netanyahu — something no single party, including the left-wing stalwart Labor, was able to achieve in prior elections.

In fact, many of Blue and White’s votes in April, as well as in September, came directly from Labor, which received 24 mandates in 2015, but collapsed down to six in April and September. That 18-mandate differential by all accounts went directly to Blue and White, and accounted for the majority of Blue and White’s 33 seats following the Sept. 17 elections.

Avigdor Lieberman first entered the Knesset as part of the right-wing National Union Party typically been run by religious settlers. Even after Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu first ran as an independent party, Lieberman often joined right-wing coalitions supported by religious parties.

In November 2018, Lieberman resigned as defense minister, citing a spat with Netanyahu on the nation’s response to the conflict with Hamas in Gaza. Netanyahu preferred a more cautious approach, and imposed his will on his more hawkish defense minister.

However, many believe that Lieberman resigned to get the jump on an early election season that was part of Netanyahu’s strategy to insulate himself from indictments on corruption charges.

Following April’s elections and his initial endorsement of Netanyahu as prime minister, Lieberman refused to join a right-wing government, citing the inability of the government to pass a law that would increase the number of religious conscripts to the IDF. Unable to forge a compromise within his right-wing camp — and without Lieberman’s critical five seats — Netanyahu fell one seat short of a majority and forced the dissolution of the Knesset just weeks after it had been sworn in.

During the September election campaign, Lieberman, like Lapid, ran on a secular agenda. His recent maneuvers secured Yisrael Beiteinu eight seats — three more than in April and two more than 2015. The otherwise small increases are noteworthy because the votes appear to have been siphoned away from Likud, which ended two seats behind Blue and White in the September elections, placing Netanyahu’s political future in doubt.

Together with Lieberman, Israel’s right wing would still produce a 63-seat majority. However, Lieberman, a longtime Netanyahu nemesis, seems intent on ending the reign of Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. Lieberman’s strategy has involved turning on his longtime religious political colleagues, who remain Netanyahu’s preferred coalition partners.

Now, in the absence of a clear winner in the current election, both Lieberman and Lapid have been calling for a “secular unity government” to be formed by Blue and White, Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu. The problem is that they in no way represent a unity approach.

The disagreements that many nonreligious Israelis and political parties have with haredi parties represent significant social issues. They center around long-standing political agreements that provide exemptions from military service to religious men; disproportionately large stipends to religious learning institutions that support a majority of religious men studying Torah full-time; and political monopolies over state religious services, including kashrut certification, marriage, conversion and holy sites.

Failing to carefully address these issues fuels societal rifts, and delaying resolutions will make future solutions even more complicated. Yet with significant geopolitical and security threats, economic challenges and the looming possibility of a major post-Netanyahu leadership vacuum, the formation of the next government should not hinge on its ability to suddenly solve long-standing and complicated issues of religion and state.

Furthermore, solutions to these issues cannot be imposed by secular Israelis intent on breaking the religious-political structure, just as religious parties cannot blindly impose their will on a majority of Israelis who are uncomfortable with the status quo. Solutions also cannot be hastily imposed by a government that has yet to establish the requisite stability.

Forcing the religious parties out of politics fails to address the reality that the religious sector is the nation’s fastest growing population and as much a part of the fabric of Israel as secular kibbutzniks and everyone in between.

Solutions will come only by working together for the good of society. Inherent in any solutions must be compassion for religious and secular sectors alike, both of which are negatively impacted by the current political compromises.

In addition, while the Likud itself is not a religious party, it is supported in large numbers by religious and traditional Israelis, meaning that it is not advancing a secular agenda. Without the Likud, the secular parties are far from being a political majority.

At a time of increasing political rifts and the seeming inability of either right or left to govern alone, repairing fractures is necessary to keep Israel on a growth trajectory. An alliance between Blue and White, Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu could legitimately be termed a centrist government and may represent a likely coalition outcome in the absence of a strong majority right-wing or left-wing bloc.

Religious parties may or may not be part of the next government for a number of reasons. Yet there is currently no mandate in Israel for a specifically “secular” government, just as any political alignment that was specifically hinged on the exclusion of a particular sector could not be considered a “unity” government.

Alex Traiman is managing director and Jerusalem Bureau Chief of Jewish News Syndicate, where this article first appeared. The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the officers and boards of the Jewish Publishing Group, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia or the Jewish Exponent. 


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