The Religious Right In Israel Is Showing Signs Of Panic And With Good Reason

For the first time in a long time Israel is poised to depose Netanyahu and form a government with no participation from the religious sector

Avigdor Lieberman is emerging as the big winner in new Israeli polls
Copyright: Roosewelt Pinheiro/ABr [CC BY 3.0 br (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/br/deed.en)]

The head of the Zionist-religious Bait Yehudi party and the minister of education Rafi Peretz has unequivocally reversed his position in favor of conversion treatments for homosexuals, declaring these treatments “forbidden”. This reversal is the latest sign of emerging panic among the Israeli religious right ahead of the upcoming September election.

The panic seems to be well-justified by the just-released Channel 12 poll which predicts the new Knesset to be as follows:

Likud 31
Blue and White 30
Joint List (Arabs) 11
Yisrael Beytenu (Lieberman) 10
UTJ (Ultra-Othodox) 8
Shas (Sephardi and Mizrahi ultra-Orthodox) 7 
Labor 6
New Right 4
URP (Union of religious Zionist parties) 4
Meretz (Socialist democratic secular) 4
Barak (New left-wing secular party headed by Ehud Barak) 4

These results, if they hold, spell the end of the Netanyahu era and a huge win for Lieberman’s gambit to scuttle the previous April elections based on his disapproval of the concessions made by Netanyahu to his coalition partners from the religious sector.

No right-leaning coalition is possible with these results without Lieberman’s support, a support he is certain to withhold. A left-leaning fully secular coalition is, however, very likely, with Arab support and with no participation from any religious party. Alternatively, a so-called national unity government may be formed with the Likud and Blue and White plus Lieberman, yielding a stable coalition of over 70 members of the Knesset and no religious participation. Such a government would likely be headed in rotation (two years each) by the head of Blue and White Benny Gantz and the Likud, though considering the personal animus between Lieberman and Netanyahu, as well as between Netanyahu and leading members of the Blue and White party, it is not likely that the Likud tenure at the helm will include Mr. Netanyahu himself.

Forcing such a unity government by a centrist secular coalition was the declared goal of Mr. Lieberman, a goal that now seems to have garnered widespread support among the Israeli public. For the religious parties, Zionist and non-Zionist alike, this outcome will be nothing short of a full-blown catastrophe, as it will cut them off from government grants for their independent education systems and other government assistance on which their communities rely. Additionally, the laws governing the military draft will be adjusted to significantly reduce if not eliminate the perpetual deferrals from military service now granted to many Yeshiva students.

Mr. Peretz’s hard u-turn with respect to the homosexual issue is indicative that his (and the Likud’s) internal polling is not at odds with the results of the public polls. It is clear that the specter of religious compulsion in Israel is driving many secular Israelis towards a vote that would preclude such compulsion from continuing its expansion, even at the cost of giving up on Mr. Netanyahu’s leadership and allowing a more dovish approach towards the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Much time yet remains before the polls open, but the smell of an upset in Israeli politics not seen since the early 2000’s seems to be in the air. Considering that in its entire modern existence Israel only had a few years in which religious parties were excluded from the seat of power, this upset may take on truly historic proportions.

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