Powerful political players for years, Israel’s ultra-Orthodox parties must now reckon with a new force ushered in by voters bent on stripping them of perks they have relied on for decades.
Centrist Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party came a surprise second in Tuesday’s parliamentary election, usurping ultra-Orthodox groups Shas and United Torah Judaism from their long-standing role of kingmakers in coalition negotiations.
Voted in by a frustrated middle-class, Yesh Atid promised to enact an “equal sharing of the burden” – code for curtailing both welfare benefits given to ultra-Orthodox families and an exemption from military service offered to their menfolk.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rightist Likud-Beitenu party led the field in the election, but he lost a quarter of his parliamentary seats in the process, making it almost impossible for him to ignore the clamour of the centre.
“There is a famous joke we (tell) in Israel,” outgoing Defence Minister Ehud Barak told CNN in an interview.
“One third of the country wakes up to work, one third is paying taxes, and one third is serving in the (army) reserves. Unfortunately it is the same one third. This one third told the government yesterday ‘That is it’,” he said.
The ultra-Orthodox, whose men stand out due to their old-fashioned beards, black hats and long coats, make up roughly 10 percent of the Israeli population. Known as the Haredim, Hebrew for ‘those who tremble before God’, they lead a pious way of life. Most are poor, shy away from mainstream secular culture and keep to their own towns and neighbourhoods.
More than half of Haredi men do not work, choosing to devote themselves to a lifetime study of the main Jewish scriptures, the Torah and the Talmud, for which many receive state stipends.
Successive coalition governments have had to rely for survival on the ultra-Orthodox parties, which in turn exacted state benefits to safeguard their distinctive lifestyle.
“They focus on very specific issues and centre all their power on them, but they give complete freedom on other matters. That is why they are such convenient coalition partners,” said political scientist Gideon Rahat of the Hebrew University.