Voting Law, Ideological Dispute Fragment Israel's Orthodox Vote., PETER MAIN New Law Will Make It Harder for Small Parties to Win Parliament Seats

Article excerpt

AS Israel's ultraorthodox religious Jews struggle to retain their political influence at next June's parliamentary elections, an unexpected issue has arisen to divide their ranks and cloud their prospects: the return of the Messiah.

All over the country, red and yellow billboards have sprung up, exhorting passersby to "prepare for the coming of the Messiah." They have been paid for by followers of the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who heads the Hassidic Habad movement from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y.

At the same time, the rebbe's followers are organizing a worldwide petition, urging Rabbi Schneerson to reveal himself as the Messiah. This campaign has stirred up turmoil in the black-hatted, dark-suited world of ultraorthodoxy, and provoked charges of heresy.

"Throughout the generations, Jews have hoped for the {Messiah's} coming," said Rabbi Eliezer Schach, the ultimate spiritual authority for all ultraorthodox Jews except Habad members, last week. "And here comes someone who says he is already here. This is a false Messiah. We must boycott him."

"You don't push your candidate for Messiah on billboards. This is not like a primary" added Michael Hasten, a follower of Rabbi Schach's, at a meeting the rabbi held here last Sunday.

The imminence - or not - of the Messiah's arrival has political implications that bode ill for the ultraorthodox parties.

The dispute over the affair is threatening unity efforts in the ultraorthodox camp, important in the light of new electoral rules that make it harder for small parties to win Knesset seats.

Holding the balance of power with their 13 seats in the current Knesset (parliament), the ultraorthodox have exerted political influence out of all proportion to the 5 percent of the population that they comprise.

The party that Schach formed in 1988, Degel Hatora, is now seeking to join up with the other Ashkenazic (European) ultraorthodox party, Agudat Yisrael, which enjoyed Schneerson's support at the last elections, and which is hoping for his backing again.

"I don't expect the same sort of enthusiasm as before" from Schneerson, Agudat Yisrael leader and deputy Labor Minister Menachem Porush said yesterday. "But there is no doubt we will have his help."

Although the Lubavitcher rebbe's aides say he has not yet decided whether to back any party at the June elections, the prospect of any sort of relation with the Habad leader is anathema to Schach and Degel Hatora.

But with the electoral threshold higher now than it was in the 1988 election, requiring any party to win at least 1.5 percent of the vote to gain a Knesset seat, it is in the small religious parties' interests to band together. …


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