Israel's Religious Divide

Ehud Barak's landslide victory over incumbent Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opens a new chapter for peace in the Middle East.

Yet the peace process was not Israeli voters' only concern. The majority showed they were tired of the disproportionate influence of ultra- Orthodox religious parties and their control of key government offices.

These small conservative parties and their backers have taken positions offensive to most Jews, not only in Israel, but also in the United States. Some 90 percent of American Jews, who are a crucial source of political and financial support for Israel, belong to the Reform and Conservative branches of Judaism.

In Israel, however, ultra-Orthodox parties have pursued policies that did not recognize conversions or marriages performed by Reform and Conservative rabbis. They insist on a stricter interpretation of divorce, Sabbath, and Kosher-food laws.

Israel's 700,000 recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union were particularly offended. Strict Interior Ministry rulings on who is and isn't a Jew, and who can sponsor family members to emigrate to Israel increased their dissatisfaction. After supporting Mr. Netanyahu in 1996, this time they deserted him in droves.

Mr. Barak must assemble a coalition government that bridges Israel's divides - no small challenge, since the religious parties gained seats. In the meantime, the US and Europe should help Barak jump-start the peace process. First priority must be implementing the Wye River accords, which call for further Israeli withdrawals from the occupied territories.

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