The Israeli elections are on Tuesday and media in the country are reporting that there is a last-minute frenzy to try and win undecided voters. Based on the polls, every seat may prove critical. The Right has been in power for nearly four years—an eternity in modern Israeli politics. The Left is having a revival in the current round. But barring a creative split-ideology government, the Right or the Left are most likely going to need the assistance of a third group to gain power: The ultra-orthodox religious parties.
Intro to religious parties
While it may seem foreign to the West for political parties to represent conservative religious groups, in Israel it is completely normal. Most parties have religious members, and some groups such as Habayit Hayehudi are predominantly religious in membership. But two parties in the current Knesset are commonly termed “ultra-orthodox”.
The ultra-orthodox parties believe strongly in having religious values influence the secular state, and they seek to safeguard the religious principles and rules that have been supported by an otherwise-secular state to this point.
For example, the State of Israel provides for full-time religious students with stipends. In Judaism, it has long been held that people ought to support those who study the Torah (first five books of the Bible) and its teachings. While not exactly the same thing as a professional minister in the West, the concept is similar.
In addition to defending traditional religious values and religious-friendly government practices, the ultra-orthodox parties also fight for issues that affect their constituents, such as housing costs and economic concerns.
The one thing that makes the two main ultra-orthodox groups unique to Israeli politics is that their commitment to their constituents and their special concerns allows the parties to join Left-leaning or Right-leaning governments. Issues such as the Palestinian conflict have limited weight for the religious groups. Here’s a quick look at the main two:
The more powerful of the two main ultra-orthodox parties, Shas represents primarily ultra-orthodox Jews who come from Sephardi backgrounds (historically those Jews hail from Spanish or Muslim countries).
Because a lot of their constituents tend to be on the lower half of the economic scale, however, Shas sometimes can be presented as defending a broader spectrum of the lower economic classes. This helps to improve their vote count, although it has tended to stabilize around a dozen in polls and the last two elections. This makes them a mid-level party just large enough to sometimes swing the Knesset from Right to Left or back again.
On issues involving the Palestinians, the Shas website notes they promote peace with the Arabs, although they say Jerusalem is “not a matter for negotiation or distribution.” Traditionally they have been in governments that have held general negotiations with the Palestinians, but have presented their opposition should Jerusalem ever be truly and publicly put on the table.
2. United Torah Judaism (UTJ)
Smaller than Shas, UTJ serves a similarly religious constituency, only from the Ashkenazi Jewish communities (Jews from eastern and northern Europe). While Shas served in the last left-wing government under Ehud Olmert, UTJ did not, but Ynet reported that UTJ has threatened to join one this time around.
According to a profile on UTJ by The Israel Project (www.theisraelproject.org) from the 2006 elections, UTJ was described as focusing on issues that concern their direct religious constituents. In general, UTJ appears to be predominantly focused on religious-linked matters.
Overall, the two main ultra-orthodox parties remain something of swing votes due to their unique constituencies. It also makes them vulnerable to being “shut out” on votes that affect their constituencies if they are not part of the coalition government. In light of that, the two parties have the special ability to join a Left-leaning or Right-leaning coalition—and a strong desire to join whomever is going to win. In the past, they have been a crucial component to the coalition’s formation.
This time, parties like Yesh Atid object to some of the religious parties’ approach to certain issues and so the parties joining the winning coalition isn’t certain. Regardless, expect the closest things to “undecided” political parties to be important players in the leadership set-up of the next Knesset.
(By Joshua Spurlock, www.themideastupdate.com, January 21, 2013)