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David Stav, a moderate Orthodox rabbi running for chief rabbi in a poll later this year, says such fears are overblown.
“This is not going to be a theocracy,” he told Reuters. Most religious politicians are “committed to a Jewish and democratic state and don’t want to see themselves as coercive to others”.
Nevertheless, centrist as well as right-wing parties are fielding religious candidates. Netanyahu has made a point of having himself photographed with skullcap-wearing voters.
A rabbi has joined ex-television star Yair Lapid’s centrist list. Former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has tapped an ex-general who wears a skullcap for her centrist party as well.
In past elections, Orthodox politicians mainly represented smaller parties focused on religious issues. Their integration into larger parties is helping them to gain more seats in parliament, although Orthodox Israelis are still a minority.
A survey by the Jerusalem-based Israel Democracy Institute found last year that 22 percent of Israeli Jews were observant, including the ultra-Orthodox and more moderately Orthodox, far outnumbered by the 78 percent who were non-observant.
Yet they may exert a disproportionate influence.
Religious movements seeking to expand Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and deny the Palestinians a state are supplanting once-powerful kibbutzniks as symbols of Israel’s self-declared national mission, many experts say.
The kibbutz, the collective farm movement identified with Israel’s early settlement of the land, long dominated military and political leadership, despite its relatively small numbers. Pollsters say the kibbutz movement may win no seats next week.
“The ideological tables have turned and religious Zionists are taking over the national discourse,” said Tamar El Or, a Hebrew University anthropologist, adding that the trend was not new, but was now translating into influence in parliament.