Israel’s ultra-orthodox parties – so long deemed part of the hawkish right – might just unlock the two-state solution
Everybody knows that religious fundamentalists are part of the Middle East’s problem. Everybody knows that Muslim and Jewish extremists make a hard situation harder, delaying the day Palestinians and Israelis find a way to live in peace. Everybody knows that the great Israeli writer Amos Oz is right when he says that so long as the conflict is “a battle over real estate” it can be solved, but once it becomes a holy war only catastrophe beckons.
But what if that conventional wisdom is wrong - or rather, what if it lumps together all religious hardliners too crudely, mistakenly including one group that might not be part of the problem at all, that might in fact be the key to the solution?
The question arises because of one unexpected side-effect of Israel’s most recent elections and the new coalition that followed. For the first time in years the ultra-orthodox Jewish parties find themselves in opposition, sitting alongside Labour, the civil rights activists of Meretz and the 11 members of the mainly Arab parties, representing Israel’s Palestinian citizens. So long inside successive ruling coalitions, the ultra-orthodox, or haredi, parties are, for now at least, outsiders. That simple fact suggests an intriguing possibility.
First, though, a word or two of definition. There are two parties involved: one, United Torah Judaism, that aims to speak for Ashkenazi religious Jews and whose leaders still wear the distinctive garb of eastern European orthodoxy; and the other, Shas, that seeks to represent those Jews with a Middle Eastern or north African background. Different though they are from each other, the relevant gap is between them and the so-called “national religious camp”, whose political arm, Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party, surged at the last elections straight into government. Bennett is the champion of, among others, the religiously motivated Jewish settlers on the West Bank, those whose faith is inseparable from a muscular brand of nationalism.