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News and views on Israel, Zionism and the war on terrorism.

January 31, 2003

The other conflict in Israel

For many outside Israel, it is the Palestinian Intifada that is the problem for Israel, but this article reveals another growing problem in Israeli politics.
(January 30, 2003 6:28 p.m. EST) - Ariel Sharon won a crushing victory in his re-election as Israeli prime minister, radically reshaping the nation's political landscape.

His conservative Likud party went from 19 to 37 seats in the 120-member Knesset. His coalition partners, rightist and religious parties, give him enough of a majority that he doesn't need the support of the Labor party, his uncomfortable partner in the previous government. Labor, long Israel's ruling party, fell from 25 seats to 19, its lowest ever.

The dominant election issue, of course, was how to cope with Palestinian terrorism. The electorate showed no great confidence in Sharon's hard-line tactics and destructive military reoccupation of the West Bank, but it showed no confidence at all that Labor and the other parties of the left have any better answers. The election left the parties of the so-called "peace camp" in disarray.

What the election did dramatize is a serious problem for the Jewish state - the deepening divide between Israel's secular or moderately observant Jews and the ultra-Orthodox, who exert great influence over certain sectors of Israeli life.

A relatively new party, Shinui, meaning "Change," ran on a platform of separating religion from government. Its leader, Tommy Lapid, campaigned on ending the estimated $1 billion in government subsidies that allow most ultra-Orthodox men not to work and fund Orthodox religious schools. He would end the ultra-Orthodox exemption from the military draft.

Shinui went from six to 15 seats, and is now Israel's third-largest political party. It displaced the ultra-Orthodox party Shas, which dropped from 17 to 11 seats.

The problem with the Palestinians tends to mask the issue, but the conflict between secular and deeply religious Israelis looks to become even sharper.