Netanyahu Drive Sheds Secularists for Orthodox Jews: Many Fear Greater Polarization
Sieff, Martin, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)
Two and a half years after Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, Israel remains a society divided between the ultrareligious and secularists, and the gap is getting wider.
"The growing split between religious-nationalist and secular Jews is the greatest threat that the state of Israel has to face," said Judith Kipper, co-director of Middle East studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now leading a political drive to recruit thousands of extremely religious "haredi" Jews into his nationalist Likud party, Israeli political sources say.
If the effort proves successful, it will shift the balance in Likud from secular nationalists to religious ones, observers say.
That will widen the gaps between the left and right wings of Israeli society and between Israel and American Jews by increasing Orthodox Jewish pressures for a more theocratic state that would be anathema to Conservative and Reform American Jews, and also to secular Israelis.
"Bibi [Mr. Netanyahu] has already registered thousands of Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem into the Likud and he is extending the drive into the Orthodox towns around Tel Aviv," said Amos Perlmutter of American University, a leading expert on Israeli politics.
The move marks a radical shift in the balance of Israel's nationalist movement as it has been since the days of its ideological father, Vladimir Jabotinsky.
Mr. Jabotinsky, who died in 1940, was a territorial maximalist who insisted that the state of Israel - created in 1948 - should hold on to Jerusalem and all of biblical Israel west of the Jordan River and never give any of it up.
But he was also a secularist and social liberal who believed in separation of church and state and freedom of religion, but without a state religion.
Not an observant Jew, one who usually did not attend synagogue on the Day of Atonement, Mr. Jabotinsky also opposed any violent uprising against Britain, which in his lifetime administered what was then Palestine.
His successor, Menachem Begin, brought Israel's nationalist right to power in 1977 after 29 years in the political wilderness. But Mr. Begin then consolidated the right-wing Likud bloc with such skill that it has won five out of six elections in the past 20 years.
Both Mr. Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, who succeeded him as Likud leader, were nonobservant Jews who courted Israel's Orthodox Jewish community. But they maintained the balance between secular nationalists and the religious community.
Mr. Netanyahu is personally nonobservant, too. Indeed, unlike Mr. Begin and Mr. Shamir, whose personal lives were never touched by the slightest hint of personal scandal, he has been divorced twice and has publicly confessed to infidelity toward his third wife, Sara. But none of this has hurt his standing with the Orthodox community in Israel. Instead, Mr. Netanyahu has been moving to sharply restrict the political power of moderate secular nationalists in the Likud and is courting extreme Orthodox support to replace them.
"Netanyahu is shedding off the nationalist and secular aspects of the Likud," Mr. Perlmutter said. "This is a huge contrast to Jabotinsky. He is seeking to further radicalize the split in Israel by moving the basis of Likud's support to a new constituency."
Former Israeli Religious Affairs Minister Shimon Shitreet told a recent conference hosted by George Washington University that Mr. Netanyahu might well succeed in maintaining an overall majority despite his personal unpopularity in the next Israeli elections, which must be held by the year 2000.
"Israeli [Jewish] society is divided into four groups," said Mr. Shitreet, who served under Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. "The ultra-Orthodox [haredi] are only about 10 percent. The mainstream Orthodox, who serve in the army and who often wear knitted skullcaps or `kipas,' are another 10 percent. …