JERUSALEM – Ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties, long the power brokers in Israeli politics, could see their influence drop after Tuesday's parliamentary election.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is expected to be re-elected, may seize on popular frustrations with the ultra-Orthodox community and play hardball with his longtime allies by turning instead to moderate parties — a move that could resolve simmering domestic issues and draw in more moderate forces on the key issue of peacemaking with the Palestinians.
Shas, the largest ultra-Orthodox party and a key partner in the outgoing coalition, is bracing for such an eventuality.
"There certainly is such a fear," said party spokesman Asher Gold. "The reason Shas historically was in all coalitions was not because they liked Shas, but because of its political power."
Shas and other ultra-Orthodox parties have risen to prominence thanks to Israel's system of proportional representation.
Controlling just 15 to 20 seats in the 120-member parliament, ultra-Orthodox parties have often provided the cushion needed for prime ministers to ensure a parliamentary majority. They have used this outsized influence to win exemptions from otherwise compulsory military service and receive generous government subsidies for their religious institutions — breeding widespread resentment among the general public. While diplomatic issues are not their main concern, the ultra-Orthodox also have tended to favor a hard line toward the Palestinians in peace efforts.
According to recent opinion polls, Netanyahu's Likud-Yisrael Beitenu bloc, along with nationalistic and religious allies, is expected to win a narrow majority of seats in Tuesday's vote. But there is widespread speculation that Netanyahu will reach across the aisle and seek more centrist parties for his coalition in order to present a more moderate face to the world. These parties, particularly the "Yesh Atid" movement headed by former TV talk show host Yair Lapid, have urged an end to the generous subsidies to the religious parties, meaning that Netanyahu could be forced to pick sides.
"If he forms a hawkish ultra-religious government, which the polls show that he can, this is not the kind of government that will be able to work with the Obama administration. And it might not be the kind of government that will curry favor with the Israeli public," said Reuven Hazan, head of the political science department at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
"The more he can ditch either ultra-religious or ultra-hawkish parties and bring in more moderate centrist parties, the better he looks both inside Israel and outside Israel," Hazan said.
In the meantime, Netanyahu has already flexed his muscles against the ultra-Orthodox, saying he plans to enact an egalitarian compulsory service law and take the Housing Ministry away from Shas, which represents Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent. The ministry, which has been used to build affordable housing for Shas' working-class constituents, "won't be in sectoral hands," Netanyahu said recently. "They need to serve all Israeli citizens."
Netanyahu has not said who he will invite into the next coalition, saying he must first be re-elected. But speaking to Channel 10 TV over the weekend, he indicated his next government would be committed to pursuing peace talks with the Palestinians. Negotiations have remained frozen during Netanyahu's four-year term, with the Palestinians refusing to negotiate because of continued settlement construction on occupied lands and Israel refusing to halt such construction as a pre-condition of talks.
Netanyahu's relations with the U.S., Israel's top ally, have been notably tense throughout his past four years in office. And in recent weeks, the Netanyahu government has infuriated the international community with plans to build thousands of homes in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, occupied territories the Palestinians seek for their future state.
Netanyahu has shrugged off the criticism, but at the same time, he has a history of co-opting moderate parties.
Lapid's "Yesh Atid," or "There is a Future," and "Hatnua," headed by former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, have said they would not be the liberal fig leafs for an extremist, ultra-Orthodox government. But neither Lapid, whose party represents middle class interests, nor Livni, whose party focuses largely on clinching a peace deal with the Palestinians, have ruled out sitting in a Netanyahu government.
The privileges granted to the ultra-Orthodox have enraged the secular and modern Orthodox majority of Israelis. Last year, Netanyahu was forced to abandon his plans to extend the draft exemptions under intense public pressure, though he so far has produced no ultra-Orthodox recruitment program.
The ultra-Orthodox camp is not monolithic: Shas is more flexible than other ultra-Orthodox parties on the draft. Other ultra-Orthodox lawmakers demand that the status quo remain and say they will not join a government that applies the draft universally.
If polls are wrong and Netanyahu's list wins more seats than is currently expected, "he will be freer to act," said Menachem Friedman, an expert on the ultra-Orthodox. With a poorer performance, "he will have a tougher time" because potential partners will be able to drive a harder bargain, he said.