Even though Israelis’ security concerns carried Netanyahu’s Likud party to victory in the elections March 17, neither the makeup of the government nor the identity of the prime minister matters right now for the big foreign relations issues.
No Israeli leader would dare consider territorial concessions while Islamic State, Hezbollah and any number of Syrian combatant groups are joining Hamas and other Palestinian organizations as threats on Israel’s borders. No Israeli leader would accept a nuclear Iran, though no Israeli leader could take military action without at least back-channel American approval. No Israeli leader would make any immediate, substantive changes to the settlement system.
And no Israeli leader would embark on serious peace talks with the Palestinians in the final two years of the Obama administration, simply because being the potential crowning achievement of an American president in the waning days of his term has been disastrous for Israel in the past.
Where the government’s composition will make a difference is within Israel, and there we have concerns. Because the coalition has only 61 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, Likud’s junior partners will have tremendous power. Netanyahu can’t afford to lose anyone and still maintain a majority, so he’ll have to give priority to the other parties’ agenda items to keep them happy.
That could be bad news for diaspora Jews who care about Jewish pluralism in Israel.
Slowly but surely in recent years, the Orthodox rabbinate’s control on Jewish religious life in Israel has cracked. The government has begun funding non-Orthodox rabbis. Compromise has been achieved for worship at the Western Wall. As the Conservative and Reform movements have grown in Israel, prospects have improved for non-Orthodox Jews and their rabbis to have the same recognition and rights in areas such as marriage and conversion that they have in the United States.
Having Shas and United Torah Judaism in the new coalition endangers that progress.
An incident in Rehovot a week before the formation of the coalition provides a preview of what could be ahead.
The mayor of Rehovot, Rahamim Malul, a former Shas member of the Knesset, canceled a b’nai mitzvah ceremony for four special-needs boys two days before the event, which was supposed to be held April 30 at a Masorti (Conservative) synagogue in the Tel Aviv suburb.
Malul said the ceremony involved “anti-religious coercion” because it was planned for a non-Orthodox shul during school hours, and Orthodox and non-Orthodox students from the public special-needs school the boys attend were invited to the ceremony during school hours.
The Masorti movement has held such special-needs b’nai mitzvah celebrations in Israel for 20 years. The ceremonies involve accommodations that usually aren’t acceptable in Orthodox synagogues, such as electronic devices for nonverbal autistic children. No children are forced to participate or attend. No one is coerced, and Malul didn’t try to stop the same ceremony in his city a year earlier.
But this year Malul knew Shas would soon move from the opposition to the government. Maybe the timing was a coincidence, or maybe it was a test of Shas’ religious agenda.
We’re counting on Netanyahu to pass that test and stand as tough with his coalition partners as he does with his allies and enemies abroad.