Israel's Ultra-Orthodox Sidelined from Coalition

(AFP) - Israel's ultra-Orthodox parties, which have traditionally played the role of political kingmaker in the Jewish state, have been left out of a new government line-up for the first time in three decades.

Supporters of the two parties -- Shas and United Torah Judaism -- have described their exclusion as a "boycott" of the country's vast and growing ultra-Orthodox community.

Neither Shas, the Sephardi party, nor the Ashkenazi United Torah Judaism, will feature in the coalition government which is due to be unveiled later on Thursday by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The new government will instead incorporate the centrist Yesh Atid and the far-right national-religious Jewish Home, both of which made an unexpectedly strong showing in January's general election.

Formal talks on piecing together a viable governing coalition have been under way for nearly six weeks following the January 22 election which saw 12 political parties elected to serve in the country's 19th Knesset.

The results significantly weakened Netanyahu, whose Likud-Beitenu alliance won a narrow victory of 31 seats, followed by Yesh Atid with 19, forcing him to exclude what he called his "natural" allies, Shas and UTJ, which won 11 and 7 seats respectively.

Central to Lapid's election campaign and that run by Naftali Bennett's Jewish Home was the pledge to change the draft law to compel ultra-Orthodox men to serve in the military.

Tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox are currently exempted from army service by virtue of being enrolled in yeshivas, or religious seminaries, and any move to expand the draft is vehemently opposed by the two parties.

UTJ's Moshe Gafni said the parties' exclusion from government amounted to "the boycott of an entire population."

His statement was echoed by other ultra-Orthodox leaders who denounced the close tie-up between Lapid and Bennett, accusing them of trying to destroy the world of Torah study.

Shas, which held the interior, housing and religion portfolios in the last government, has also been relegated to the opposition benches.

According to Haaretz newspaper, Shas put hundreds of its members in the ministries it controlled, and pushed for budgetary aid to ultra-Orthodox Jews to the detriment of the rest of the population.

"This boycott is dangerous because today it's the ultra-Orthodox, and tomorrow it will be the Arabs, the settlers or Russian immigrants," said Arye Deri, one of the leaders of Shas.

But Bennett rebutted the attacks.

"We have never boycotted the ultra-Orthodox, and will continue to defend the interests of our brothers," he said.

The Israel Hayom freesheet gave their complaints short shrift.

"The ultra-Orthodox have a short memory when they cry boycott, since they did the same thing to other areas of the population (when they were in power)," it said, noting the complete absence of pictures of women or rabbis from other sects in the Orthodox media.

"The ultra-Orthodox are the first to boycott all those not in their immediate circle," it said.


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