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Meanwhile, while everyone in the rest of the world is focused on terrorism, Arafat, and Israel’s diplomatic skirmish with Syria, the real news in Israel is the latest chapter in the religious versus secular divide:

The cabinet voted to dismantle the Religious Affairs Ministry Wednesday and transfer authority over the rabbinical courts to the Justice Ministry headed by Shinui leader Yosef Lapid, a move that infuriated the National Religious Party and triggered a coalition crisis.

[ . . . ]

Eitam warned after his meeting with the chief Rabbis Wednesday that if the Cabinet’s decision to transfer control of the country’s rabbinical courts to the Justice Ministry were to pass in the Knesset, the National Religious Party would quit the coalition government. “We will not cooperate with Shinui’s secular humanism. This is not a question of jobs; this is a critical debate on the Jewish character of Israel. A government without the NRP may be legal, but it won’t be legitimate,” Eitam said Wednesday evening.

Any step that Israel takes to transfer more power to secular administration is a positive one, in my opinion. But Lapid is such a hated symbol among the large Orthodox population in Israel, that this likely came as a slap in the face to them at a time when unity is more important than division.

The problem is that the Orthodox rabbinate has altogether too much power in Israel – they decide everything from weddings and divorces to what sort of meat Israeli restaurants can buy (even non-kosher ones). And the most upset people are often the Conservative and Reform Jews, who feel slighted.

This division between Orthodox and secular is no small issue in Israel. In many ways, it’s almost a more difficult division than the one between Jews and Arabs, because the religious feel they have a “claim” on the secular Jews and should be encouraging them to live more religiously. This leads to a lot of resentment and conflict, not to mention tug-of-war political grappling. The fallout from today’s decision promises to be significant.

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The National Religious Party and Shinui agreed yesterday to join Sharon’s coalition government.

This despite Shinui’s anti-religious stance. Although Shas has so far been excluded from the government, in keeping with Lapid’s promise that Shinui would never join a government that includes Shas. At any rate, it looks like the NRP and Shinui have made a couple of key compromises:

The NRP received assurances that religious education would remain independent and budget cuts for national service for religious women would be repealed.

The coalition guidelines will include an agreement reached between the NRP and Shinui which calls for the Tal Law that grants IDF service deferments to all yeshiva students to be canceled and replaced by a new arrangement. The Large Families Law, under which state support for families increases sharply from the fifth child, will be replaced by a law granting an equal allotment for each child.

The key issue to watch there is the Yeshiva deferment one. This has been in place since 1948, when Ben-Gurion made a concession to a small number of Yeshiva students, exempting them from army service in attempt to preserve the small number of religious scholars from Eastern Europe who survived the Holocaust. It quickly ballooned into a huge loophole, through which virtually all religious men and women are able to defer their army service by declaring themselves too religious to serve. It will be interesting to see what the law is replaced with. I personally suspect it won’t be too different from the status quo, because Sharon would never risk alienating the entire Haredi population of Israel at this point.

Shinui and the NRP give Sharon a very narrow majority. If Am Ehad joins the coalition, it will be a bit more secure. Labor, however, still seems to be holding out, and it’s starting to look like Mitzna may actually stay out of the government. Yes, I know I predicted otherwise, but hey, who says I’m right?

The world media is decrying this as being bad for the peace process, saying that Sharon has formed a right-wing government that opposes peace. The NRP is opposed to Palestinian statehood as a matter of record, but I suspect that won’t matter much, as the parties have agreed to consider President Bush’s “road map” – if only to help the ailing Israeli economy for now.

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Random musings on Israeli politics

01.29.2003

So who’s celebrating? Well, ironically, not Sharon. He knew he’d be re-elected. He’s not going to celebrate until he figures out how on earth to string together a coalition in this mess. Amram Mitzna’s not celebrating too hard either. He gambled and opted to compete for votes on the Left instead of in the middle. […]

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Israeli election results summary

01.29.2003

Montreal/Israel in Brief sent a special election mailing that contained this handy table summarizing the election results: Party Ideology Leader Seats ’99 Seats ’03 / change Center Right and Religious Bloc: . . . 67 Center- Right Parties . . . 46 Likud Possibility of Palestinian State – Violence must end. Ariel Sharon 19 37 […]

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Israeli election update

01.28.2003

According to exit polls, Likud is estimated to have won 34 seats in Knesset in today’s election, with Labor in second place at 18 seats. Shinui is in third place with 16 seats. More definitive results will probably take a few hours, as polls are closing any minute now and ballots need to be counted. […]

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