ISRAEL'S religious parties once waited confidently to be tempted
into Israeli governments, but now they are clamoring to be allowed
to join the coalition that Labor Party leader Yitzhak Rabin is
If the ruling Likud Party's defeat in last week's elections was
dramatic, even more significant in the long term could be the the
way in which voters decisively broke the ultra-orthodox parties'
grip on Israeli politics. The effects, religious politicians and
their opponents agree, are likely to be far-reaching.
"The sword of the ultra-orthodox has been blunted," says
outgoing Knesset (parliament) member Yoash Tsiddon, of the
militantly secular Tsomet Party. "They are certainly not going to
be making any gains."
"We still have some influence," says Rabbi Avraham Ravitz of the
ultra-orthodox United Torah Judaism (UTJ) Party. "But we are not
holding the big parties by the neck."
As a result, emotionally charged issues such as whether to
subject yeshiva students to compulsory military service, and
government funding for religious schools, will be high on the new
"We are really a little worried about the new government,"
admits Mr. Ravitz, a Knesset member. "There were a lot of
antireligious slogans in the campaign, and they might become
The three religious parties - the ultra-orthodox Shas, the UTJ,
and the modern orthodox National Religious Party (NRP) - lost only
two of their 18 Knesset seats at the recent elections. But the
remarkable success of two fiercely secular parties, Meretz and
Tsomet, means that for the first time in Israeli history, Mr. Rabin
has the option of forming a wholly secular government.
On the left, the doveish Meretz won 12 seats; on the right, the
extremely hawkish Tsomet, under former Army Chief of Staff Rafael
Eitan, went from two to eight seats. All they have in common are
their anticlerical and pro-clean-government reputations.
Their success is widely seen as a response to the way the
ultra-orthodox parties have used their pivotal position in Israeli
politics over the past 11 years to extract money for their
"If you are a very small religious party and you have more power
than you really represent, you bring the hatred of people against
you," says Ravitz. "You might lose the way by getting drunk from
the power you think you have, and demanding more than you deserve."
Shas, supported mainly by Sephardic Jews (those of non-European
origins), has drawn further opprobrium with a series of financial
scandals. Party strongman Aryeh Deri, the interior minister, is
under indictment, and one of his close aides is currently on trial
for misappropriation of funds.
The manner in which the religious parties have auctioned their
support to the highest bidder during past coalition bargaining
sessions was highlighted this week in a report by the Israel
Religious Action Center (IRAC), sponsored by the liberal Reform
wing of Judaism. …