The Israeli government’s decision not to honor an agreement with major non-Orthodox denominations and Women of the Wall to establish an egalitarian prayer space within the Kotel was an edifying moment for liberal establishment groups in the American Jewish community: These movements and organizations, by carefully negotiating with the government and making crucial compromises along the way, had done everything right. There was no attempt at political coercion; no threat to cut off funds from Israel; and, judging from any rational reading of the accord, there was no effort to subvert ultra-Orthodox control over the vast majority of the Kotel. Not only were the non-Orthodox movements jilted by the prime minister in favor of his relationship with the two ultra-Orthodox political parties, United Torah Judaism (UTJ) and Shas, but Benjamin Netanyahu accused them of trying to “secretly” obtain official status at the Kotel “via the backdoor.” This accusation was particularly stupefying given that such recognition was in fact explicitly granted in the agreement he supported in 2016. Now, the Reform and Conservative movements face a dispiriting political reality: even a shift from center-right to center-left governance is unlikely to produce a government significantly more inclined to advance religious equality for non-Orthodox Jewish groups.
To be sure, centrist and liberal parties will offer some appeal to the small number of voters whose first priority issues are the Kotel and rejection of the Orthodox monopoly over religious affairs in Israel; not only are there a number of secular Israelis who also disdain ultra-Orthodox power, but opposition parties could highlight the damage done to the crucial relationship between the Jewish state and American Jews. But the math, assuming UTJ and Shas do not become religious moderates overnight, is unlikely to work for those who seek to reinstate the Kotel agreement by electoral means.
Why? If the ultra-Orthodox parties are convenient allies for the right, they are simply irreplaceable for the Zionist Left. Unlike the right, the left starts off with a deficit of 12 to 13 seats, a consequence of the Joint List being both unwilling and unable to make the compromises necessary to join a governing coalition. The new leader of the Labor Party, Avi Gabbay, also recently said he would continue the political boycott of the Joint List.
Even if the Joint List is willing to recommend a mainstream center-left candidate to President Rivlin following an election, an action which itself would constitute a potential poison pill when it comes to negotiations with a party like Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, they would still not factor into the 61 votes necessary to establish a majority government that could enact an annual budget.
To get a measure of just how difficult forming a center-left government without ultra-Orthodox parties would be, it is worth considering the Channel 10 poll (part one and part two) that was released over the weekend. This poll presents a dream scenario: the left-leaning opposition parties, Yesh Atid (21), Zionist Union (20), and Meretz (7) are set to win a combined 48 seats, compared to 49 for current coalition members Likud (26), Yisrael Beiteinu (6), Kulanu (7) and Bayit Yehudi (10); the Joint List would only lose one seat, falling from 13 to 12 mandates; and the ultra-Orthodox would win only 6 seats, all of which would go to UTJ with Shas falling below the electoral threshold.
The most realistic possibility for a center-left government that would exclude UTJ, which would surely not consent to restoring the Kotel Agreement, is a coalition of the left-leaning opposition parties, Kulanu, and Yisrael Beiteinu. Therefore, the most realistic possibility involves Avigdor Lieberman and Zehava Gal-On of Meretz signing the same coalition agreement, or at the very least consistently supporting the survival of the same government. This is rather unlikely, to put it mildly.
The ultra-Orthodox political elite are well-aware of the left’s conundrum. Moshe Gafni, a prominent ultra-Orthodox lawmaker and powerful chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee, told the Ha’aretz Peace Conference in June that he was willing to work with the left on the sole condition they stop advocating for Reform Jews.
It is also doubtful we will see in the near future a right-wing government devoid of ultra-Orthodox parties. The last time such a coalition was assembled, following the 2013 elections, Yesh Atid, the centrist party founded by the secular television icon Yair Lapid, and Bayit Yehudi, the party of the national-religious constituency, had formed a political “brotherhood” and worked to keep Shas and UTJ out of the coalition. The upshot was a modest reform to the blanket exemptions ultra-Orthodox received from national service, which was indefinitely postponed when Shas and UTJ returned to the government; on most other issues, especially on negotiations with the Palestinians, it was a coalition of unnatural partners that collapsed in less than two years. Unsurprisingly, Shas and UTJ have proven to be far more reliable for Netanyahu and Likud than the right’s traditional opponents in the center and on the left; likewise, Bayit Yehudi learned the same lesson when it found itself sitting in a government that was releasing Palestinian prisoners in exchange for continued participation in John Kerry’s quixotic quest for two states. It remains unlikely we will see another coalition like that will form in the future.
Given this political reality, what the non-Orthodox movements and their allies should do next is an open question. For now it seems they are set on running a public campaign and challenging the status quo in court. Regardless of what path they ultimately choose, no prospective government, right or left, will likely make major strides for the benefit of the Reform and Conservative movements.