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Religious Parties Have Something to Celebrate

Israel: Secular Jews shake their heads in disbelief as they learn that Orthodox groups will control 25 of the 120 parliament seats.


JERUSALEM — While candidates Shimon Peres and Benjamin Netanyahu maintained a tight-lipped silence Thursday, awaiting final results of Israel's cliffhanger election, broad smiles and celebrations were the order of the day among the voting's undisputed winners: a trio of small religious parties whose voice in Israel's parliament has just grown gigantic.

"We will turn the Knesset into a beit knesset," shouted one man, using the Hebrew term for "synagogue," at a celebratory bash.

Small parties in general, and the religious right in particular, made a spectacular showing in Wednesday's voting.

Secular Jews shook their heads in disbelief as they woke up to the fact that religious groups, some of which are directed by rabbis as old as 100, will control 25 of the 120 seats in the Knesset.

And it was not just conservative Jewish groups that advanced. A new immigrant party founded by former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky also made a respectable showing, as did the Third Way party made up of former mainstream politicians who fear that Israel's negotiations with its Arab neighbors are proceeding too quickly.

Religious parties said their surge was because of dissatisfaction with what many citizens of Israel saw as a secular drift by the Labor-led government of the past four years. Political analysts, meanwhile, pointed to a procedural change in voting that encouraged split ballots to the benefit of smaller parties.

The major parties lost ground. Labor dropped from 44 seats to 33, while the Likud coalition fell from 40 to 31 seats, meaning both will be especially subject to pressure from smaller parties. "We expected an increase on the small parties, but nothing like this," said the Labor government's housing minister, Binyamin Ben Eliezer.

The new Knesset will be a "fateful reflection of all schisms and divisions in Israeli society, along social, political and ethnic lines," said Joseph Alpher, director of the Israel/Middle East office of the American Jewish Committee in Jerusalem.

The leader of Shas, the largest religious party in the new parliament, said his group will demand more schools, more synagogues and more mikvahs, or ritual baths.

"We won a big victory," said Aryeh Deri. The three religious parties will probably negotiate as a bloc to join the next government, he said.

For Orthodox and tradition-minded Jews, the election was seen as a vindication and an affirmation that Israel will remain a Jewish state. Since last year's assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a religious law student, observant Jews had felt that they were being ignored and even "demonized" by the Peres government, according to members of a religious settlement at Beit El, north of Jerusalem.

They pointed to moves to restrict religiously inspired settlement by Jews in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and arguments over religious content in public education. "We've had enough of governments ashamed to be Jewish and ashamed to be Zionist," said Beit El resident Shelly Konechny. "The voters said 'yes' to Judaism and 'yes' to Zionism."

But among more secular Jews and the country's Arab minority, some people raised fears that a trend toward religion in national institutions is going too far.

"The dream of an open country, a democratic and progressive state, is slipping away unless we manage to do something about it," said Shulamit Aloni, a leader of the secular Meretz party. "As for a Halachik [Judaic law] state, I think we are already halfway there. From birth to death, our lives are dictated by the religious establishment."

Edna More, a psychologist in Haifa, said she watched the election returns with concern. "I want this country to be more liberal, not to remind me so much of Iran."

The religious parties benefited from a new way of voting in Israel. For the first time, people did not cast ballots solely for party slates for parliament. This time, the prime minister was elected directly by the voters.

That meant people could cast split ballots for the first time. Many chose a candidate for prime minister and then were free to vote their religious or ethnic identity when it came to parliamentary representatives.

Many voters who would have stuck to Labor or Likud in the past because they wanted to influence who would lead the country voted for parliamentary seats for one of the three main religious parties, whose total representation jumped by nine seats, from 16 to 25.

Shas, a party representing mainly Jews of North African and Middle Eastern origin, went from six seats to 11. The National Religious Party of nationalist conservatives rose from six seats to 10. And the United Torah Judaism, dominated by Orthodox Jews of mainly European origin, kept the four seats it had after the 1992 elections.

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