Religious privileges in peril as Barak starts work

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The Independent Online
EHUD BARAK mounted the stage overlooking Tel-Aviv's Rabin Square at 3am on Tuesday to address thousands of jubilant supporters, and opened his victory speech with a traditional prayer: "I am the emissary of all of Israel. Even though I am not worthy, O Lord, let me succeed."

The young crowd, barely a skull-cap among them, took it in their stride. But the religious public got the message. Although they had voted overwhelmingly for his right-wing rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, Mr Barak was showing that he wanted at least one religious party in his coalition. Even after the anti-clerical left did so well in the election, the religious right will not be out in the cold.

The three religious parties have won a battle but lost a war in the general election. Their numbers have swelled from 23 MPs in the outgoing parliament to a record 27 in the new. Their combined strength has increased, but their leverage has weakened. Mr Barak could form a coalition without them.

If they joined the government, it would be on his terms not theirs. The gravy days of Mr Netanyahu's fragile administration, where every vote was a matter of life or death - and the religious politicians were pastmasters at making each one count - are over.

Their demands - lavish funding for seminaries, mass exemption from military service - provoked a resounding backlash among Israel's secular majority. Tommy Lapid, a journalist who entered politics only two months ago, won six seats on a stridently anti-clerical platform.

The left-liberal Meretz, an older hammer of the ultra-Orthodox, held on to its nine seats.

The seminarists are a particularly sore point. About 30,000 of them are currently excused conscription at a time when Israel is waging a painful war of attrition with Hizbollah guerrillas in Lebanon. One out of every 13 boys who reach military age is exempted. The rate rose by 45 per cent during the Netanyahu years. Some 200,000 young, and not-so-young men study Talmud into middle age. The Israeli taxpayer foots the bill in grants, housing subsidies and family allowances.

The secularists rejoiced this week that they were taking back their country. "We all feel better," beamed Yehuda Ilan in his furniture shop on the fringe of Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim ghetto. "Any free person would." They voted for Mr Barak not least because he promised to draft seminary students and redirect money to schools and universities.

Yossi Beilin, one of his senior Labour colleagues, told The Independent yesterday: "The anti-religious swing was a reaction to the excesses of the last three years, rather than an expression of hatred towards Jewish tradition. We aim to quell these flames, to bring peace at home as well as peace with our neighbours."

Shaul Schiff, a columnist in the National Religious Party's Hatzofeh daily, urged his elected representatives to take up the offer. "We must respond to any call by Barak to join his coalition," he commented. "The rift in the nation is frightening. Now is the moment of truth in which we have to stop the deterioration."

Menachem Porush, 83, an ultra-Orthodox veteran who has negotiated with secular politicians since the first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, was less submissive. "After the extreme anti-religious propaganda we went through in the elections, we are afraid," he said. "But if [Barak] wants to be sure of this term and further terms, he shouldn't make the mistake of breaking relations with the religious parties." Conscription, he said, was out.

But Shmuel Sandler, a political science professor at Tel-Aviv's Bar-Ilan University, said the ultra-Orthodox would have to adapt to a new reality.