Government Without the Ultra-Orthodox? Demography and the Future of Israeli Politics

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It would be hard to conjure up a more grave and immediate set of peacetime challenges than those that Israel faces today-from the advances in Iran’s nuclear program, to the political instabilities that continue to play out along the length of its borders. Yet, the outcome of the January 2013 election of the 19th Knesset appears to have been shaped less by the Israeli public’s perceptions of foreign threats, and more by its domestic concerns. After the votes had been tallied, Yesh Atid, led by former broadcast journalist Yair Lapid, had secured 19 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, a surprising showing for a party organized only a few months prior to the election and running a list of political outsiders. As Prime Minister Netanyahu assembled his coalition partners, Yesh Atid struck up a “both of us, or neither of us” pact with HaBayit Yehudi (The Jewish Home), a nationalist party to the right of Likud led by Naftali Bennett that sent 12 members to the current Knesset (MKs). As a result, Lapid and Bennett were able to exclude the two major ultra-Orthodox-led electoral lists-Shas with 11 MKs, and United Torah Judaism (UTJ, a list including two Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox parties) with 7 MKs-from the ruling coalition.[1]

This brief note raises two questions: How did Yesh Atid rise from a virtual standing start to claim a critical position in Israel’s 33rd government? And what does this party’s electoral achievement mean for the future of Israel’s democracy? To respond, I will assume a position that most Middle East analysts are likely to consider highly speculative-that minority population growth has pushed the nation’s secular political establishment into a corner; neither can they afford to invite ultra-Orthodox parties into a ruling coalition, nor can they continue to neglect the public’s demands for policy reforms that would change the fundamental relationships between the ultra-Orthodox, Israel’s Arab citizens, and the state. While this position appears like unfettered speculation to those holding the “conventional view”, to others with a demographic perspective on Israel’s social turbulence, this shift seems virtually inevitable.[2]

The conventional view has it that, rather than the forbearer of change, Yesh Atid is the latest in a long and line of ephemeral centrist parties that have achieved significant power in the Knesset over the past fifty years. Each has exploited a wide ideological gap between the two secular Zionist “status quo” parties-those that have governed and upheld the basic structure of Israel’s domestic institutional arrangements: Likud, now led by Benyamin Netanyahu, on the right; and to the left, Labour, headed by its new chairman, Isaac Hertzog. In the conventional view, Yesh Atid-like all of its centrist-party predecessors-is purported to be fragile, held intact by the political prowess and public personae of its party leader and by his or her abilities, before each election, to distinguish the party’s immediate agenda from both Labour and Likud, and thus resist being absorbed by either.[3]

Political demographers, however, understand the rise of Lapid’s party very differently. In this demographic perspective, Yesh Atid represents the latest “standard bearer” for the growing number of equity voters who go to the polls with issues of domestic politics foremost in their minds. These Israelis perceive the distribution of the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship-which, they argue, favors ultra-Orthodox and Arab citizens over middle-class and state interests-to be Israel’s most pressing political concern. Many believe that the long-term growth trajectories of these minorities threaten Israel’s future prosperity and security. Yesh Atid’s platform (much like the platform of Shinui, a centrist party once led by Yair Lapid’s now-deceased father, Tommy Lapid) has pledged to reform state policies and institutions that have, virtually since independence, reinforced and subsidized the separation of ultra-Orthodox and Israeli Arabs from the mainstream of Israeli society. In addition, Lapid has pledged to reduce the power of the Chief Rabbinate, which has been controlled by ultra-Orthodox rabbis and has maintained jurisdiction over the institutions of Israeli Jewish life: Jewish marriage and divorce, conversion to Judaism, eligibility for immigration to Israel, control of Jewish religious sites and rabbinical schools, and kosher certification.

For decades, it has been a common post-election practice for the party that wins the most Knesset seats-whether from the political left, right or center-to complete its coalitional majority by striking a bargain with the ultra-Orthodox parties. “The Deal”, like coalition-building deals anywhere, comes with a sizable price tag. For ultra-Orthodox parties to join the coalition and guarantee its stability, the principal partners customarily promise to continue to extend family welfare expenditures to ultra-Orthodox families, and national service exemptions and stipends for young-adult students at yeshiva (rabbinical schooling).[4]

However, these subsidies are not fixed costs. As the ultra-Orthodox population has grown from an inconsequential minority at independence-numbering perhaps as few as 40,000 individuals-to roughly 800,000, an estimated 10 percent (about half of whom are under the age of 16) of Israel’s eight-million-plus population today, so have The Deal’s financial, social and political costs. In 2009, Tzipi Livni backed away from this trade-off as head of Kadima, relinquishing her chance to head a new government and weakening her grip on the helm of Kadima. In May of 2010, Livni made a public plea to Prime Minister Netanyahu to replace the ultra-Orthodox parties in his government with Kadima, in order to begin integrating the ultra-Orthodox into the Israeli mainstream. While Netanyahu rejected her proposal, Livni’s argument resonated with the press and among local politicians.[5]

Since then, two additional developments have amplified the public discourse around Israel’s minority issues. In 2012, Israel’s Supreme Court declared the Tal Law, which codified the ultra-Orthodox’s military exemptions, unconstitutional. Then, in December, the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) released a report that published high, low and medium projections for three groups of citizens: ultra-Orthodox Jews, Israeli Arabs, and the remaining population. According to the CBS’s middle-of-the-road “medium projection” for each of the three groups, by 2030 about 21 percent of Israel’s eligible voters will be of Arab descent-up from about 17 percent at the time of the 2013 election. Another 11 percent, according to this projection, will be comprised of ultra-Orthodox Jews-up from nearly 7 percent in 2013 (Fig. 1).[6]

To read the full report, click here


This report was originally published at the Foreign Policy Research Institute December, 2013

Photo Credit: The Israel Project via Flickr


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