Israel's Religious Parties to Lose Their Pivotal Role in Government Labor's Campaign Promises Raise Religious Parties' Concerns That Their Influence and Funding Will Fade

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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 forming.

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 government's agenda.

"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 reality."

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 institutions.

"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. …


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