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

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.

The study showed how funding for the Religious Affairs Ministry quadrupled in real terms between 1981 - the first year the Likud was forced to seek ultra-orthodox support - and 1991. Overall funding for the religious sector more than doubled, to well over half a billion dollars a year. The jumps in funding occurred in 1982, 1985, and 1989, each time after new governments were formed, the report found. It also calculated that through grants from the Education Ministry and extra-budgetary political allocat ions, students in the privately run religious school systems enjoy significantly more funding per capita than students in state-run secular schools.

This is likely to stop under the next government, into which Rabin is expected to bring both Meretz and - as a balancing factor - the right-wing Tsomet Party. Labor published coalition guidelines on Tuesday promising to "examine the financial allocations given to yeshivas and religious institutions in order to allocate funds on the basis of equal and universal criteria."

"Now, for a change, funding should be based on objective criteria, not catch-as-catch-can," says Rabbi Uri Regev, IRAC's director. "It will not be business as usual."

But "the main fight, the most heated discussion," says Mr. Regev, will be over the exemption from military service that some 20,000 ultra-orthodox youths currently enjoy, to the bitter resentment of most other Israelis. The Labor guidelines said "the government will examine the issue of exemptions from military service given yeshiva students in all its aspects and set new criteria for this."

But the ultra-orthodox parties say they will fight to retain the exemptions, one of their dearest privileges. "If they want to disturb the status quo, especially if they want to disturb the yeshiva students, we would not join the government," says Ravitz.

Both Shas and the UTJ are keen to join the government in order to defend their interests. "It is important for us to have influence on the government, especially on items like our educational system," explains Ravitz.

And Rabin appears tempted to include at least one religious party in his Cabinet to give it stability, and ensure that no single party could bring him down by resigning from the government. Shas and the UTJ are the most likely candidates, since the NRP took a strongly right-wing stance during the elections, diametrically opposed to Labor's policy toward the Palestinians.

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