Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing a growing number of warnings from international Jewish groups regarding a recent series of capitulations of the Ultra-Orthodox parties in the far-right coalition government, which they warn risks a major alienation of the Jewish diaspora toward the state of Israel.
Since the March 2015 election, Netanyahu has ruled with an extremely narrow coalition, 61 MPs in a 120-seat Knesset at the election, boosted to 67 in mid-2016 . This has meant even the smallest coalition partner could conceivably cost them majority, and several parties have flexed the extra political muscle this grants them. This has been most visible in the pushes for massive settlement expansions by pro-settler groups.
This time, it’s not the settlements at issue, but rather the influence of Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox minority, as represented by Shas and United Torah Judaism, who have 13 seats between them. They issued three major demands over the past week, all related to their religious sensibilities.
These demands included the government halting all repairing of railroad tracks during the Sabbath, full control of conversions to Judaism being regulated by the state rabbinate, and by extension by the Ultra-Orthodox parties who always end up in control of that, and finally, a full government reverse of the Western Wall (Kotel) compromise.
The later two are likely to have the biggest implications. In early 2016, facing growing protests from Reform Jews, the coalition agreed to a compromise at the Western Wall, greatly expanding access to the Western Wall by non-Orthodox people, increasing the size of the mixed-gender section, and reversing a rule that meant government ceremonies done at the site had to be done under Orthodox Jewish law. This meant until 2016, women were banned from singing at such events, and they were all required to be gender-segregated.
Netanyahu’s move restores the Western Wall to the pre-2016 status, stops Saturday railroad repair, and means that overwhelmingly, Jewish converts from abroad will not be recognized as Jewish within Israel.
Netanyahu is facing a quick backlash from the Reform Jewish community, not just within Israel, but abroad, and is arguing that he had to choose to give in to the demands or face the loss of his coalition government, and early elections.
The government will survive, at least until the next controversy comes up, but analysts and even some cabinet ministers are warning that the move is going to massively alienate international Jews, giving them the sense that they have no real connection with the “Jewish state.”
Nowhere is this a bigger concern than with the United States, as officials openly fear that their “strategic arm” in the US, dependent in no small part on the support of America’s Conservative and Reform Jews, has been sacrificed for the sake of Netanyahu retaining power.