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Repeat elections in Israel may not be enough to overcome religious divisions

Any resulting coalition would be unstable. Here’s why.

- June 6, 2019

For the first time in its 71-year history, Israel will hold a repeat election after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was unable to form a coalition government. Though there were many mathematically possible combinations for a coalition, Netanyahu could not find a formula to bridge these alliances. Some worry about the future of democratic politics in Israel, as Bibi (a nickname for Netanyahu) pursues an immunity bill against corruption charges while his right-wing partners have successfully passed populist nationalist laws.

It’s unclear whether a repeat election can solve the underlying problems that prevented a viable coalition this time. Deep divides between the “left” and the “right” in Israel prevented any serious thought about Netanyahu forming a unity government with the large centrist Blue and White party. The big surprise was that polarization over religious issues ended up preventing the formation of the expected narrow right-wing government.

Religious Polarization

Netanyahu’s failure to build a right-wing coalition, despite his seemingly clear victory two months ago, largely came down to a split between secular and religious coalition partners over one contentious issue: military draft exemptions for ultra-Orthodox men.

Coalition negotiations blew up after Avigdor Liberman, the founder and leader of the secular nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, announced that he would not join a “Jewish Law” government — by which he meant the widely held perception that Netanyahu was offering religious political parties new religious legislation in exchange for their support, including a watering-down of the military bill.

This is not a new position for Liberman. His electoral base is overwhelmingly made up of Russian-speaking immigrants from the former Soviet Union who especially dislike perceived concessions to the religious public. Some say he was particularly incensed by rumors that the Rabbinate was making Israelis from the former Soviet Union to undergo Jewish DNA tests before being allowed to marry.

However, Liberman is also building on the wider perception that Israel is slowly being turned into a religious state. In Israel, the secular majority feels threatened by the growing influence of religious groups in political life and deepening religious legislation. As religious institutions and communities continue to migrate into more secular areas, religious issues are also at the forefront of many local political battles.

Protests erupted in Ashkelon and Ashdod, for instance, when convenience stores and other grocery stores were closed on the Sabbath. Other flash points include fights in Arad over religious posters and religious boycotts over “immodest” malls in Jerusalem. Surveys also show that the majority of Israelis are highly opposed to religious coercion and support religious reform, including civil marriage.

In 2015, Liberman initially refused to join the coalition with the religious parties, but Netanyahu managed to put together 61 seats without his party. This time, Liberman knew Netanyahu could not form a majority coalition without his support, as the same constellation of parties that formed the 2015 coalition held 60 seats, one seat short of a majority. Liberman took full advantage of his electoral leverage, blasting Netanyahu and becoming the unexpected champion of secular Israel.

Key takeaways from the Israeli election

Why is this issue so hard to resolve?

In my research, I explore different aspects of religion and conflict in Israel. Based on my research, I argue that the main reason the disagreement over the ultra-Orthodox draft is so hard to resolve is precisely because it is viewed by both sides as a symbolic/religious political issue.

The draft issue is mostly symbolic because both sides agree that the Israeli army does not tangibly benefit from having a few extra thousand ultra-Orthodox soldiers. Instead, this is a disagreement rooted in values, with both sides taking hard positions.

Scholars note that political conflict that involves nonmaterial dimensions are hard to resolve. Examples include conflict over sacred territory or disagreement over political issues that involve religious beliefs (such as abortion). These conflicts are more resistant to traditional forms of compromise, as offering material incentives can create greater opposition to political compromise.

The moral psychology literature attributes this backlash to the psychological mechanism where individuals recoil from a cost-benefit analysis over sacred values. Compared with values rooted in self-interest, these beliefs are seen as absolute and defy traditional cost-benefit calculations. It’s also important to note that sacred values are not held exclusively by religious individuals.

In Israel, divisions over symbolic religious issues between secular and religious right-wing parties make this potential coalition unstable. Pollsters are calculating whether a new election will give Netanyahu a 61-seat majority, without the support of Liberman. Other analysts are worried about a possible third election, which they label a “three-peat electionlie

Even a third election may not resolve these differences, however. Growing polarization in Israel may lead to electoral instability as it becomes harder to make political coalitions in Israel. This could lead to structural challenges to the viability of Israel’s democracy under its current electoral rules. But under conditions of deadlock, it is not clear whether or how those rules could be modified, or whether elections can overcome these profound divides.

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Michael Freedman is a PhD candidate in political science at MIT.