As Israel’s Political Parties Fight for the Role of Coalition Kingmaker, the Religious-Secular Divide Comes to the Fore

March 16, 2021 | Haviv Rettig Gur
About the author: Haviv Rettig Gur is the senior analyst for the Times of Israel.

With Israelis going to the polls next week, Haviv Rettig Gur comments on the predicament party leaders now find themselves in:

If Prime Minister Netanyahu manages to eke out a slim majority, it will likely be so slim that he will find himself forced to cater to the whims of the most right-wing lawmakers on the ballot. Netanyahu’s opponents, meanwhile, theoretically led by Yair Lapid of [the secular, center-left] Yesh Atid, may well be too divided and diverse to produce a manageable coalition.

Many . . . factions are trying to take advantage of the standoff in the hope of playing kingmaker after election day. The Islamist party Ra’am, for example, has detached from the Arab-majority Joint List to mount its own run, promising to deal with anyone who wins the election, even the disliked Netanyahu, in order to deliver budgets and government attention to its marginalized Bedouin and Arab constituents.

This competition at the margins has caused mudslinging between parties who are by no means competing for the same voters: the ḥaredi United Torah Judaism, led by Moshe Gafni, and the right-wing and anti-ḥaredi Yisrael Beytenu, led by Avigdor Lieberman. Each has found in the other the perfect enemy with which to rally voters:

Lieberman and . . . Gafni face the same problem. Their respective parties and broader political camps seem close to victory; nevertheless, they have each remained maddeningly far from it for two long years. Each is threatened from within his own camp—Lieberman, from secularist challengers like Yesh Atid and others, UTJ by frustrated ḥaredi voters streaming toward the religious Zionist parties. Each badly needed a nemesis, a threat to his respective constituents’ way of life, to rally the ranks and draw the apathetic out to the polls.

Over the past few days, with . . . accusations of “anti-Semitism” and “fundamentalism,” they have found in each other the answer to their troubles.

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