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Tuesday, 6 February, 2001, 15:17 GMT
The fault lines in Israeli politics
Israeli right-wing demonstrate in Jerusalem
Right-wing Israelis demonstrate against peace process concessions on Jerusalem
By BBC News Online's Tarik Kafala

Israeli society is riven with deep and divisive fault lines that define the character of the state's politics.

These divisions are ethnic and religious, and about different views of the peace process.

They give Israeli politics an almost tribal character, with sections of Israeli voters appearing to be primarily concerned, not with the security or the economy, but with furthering their own particular interests.

Certain political and religious leaders are emerging who can generate fierce loyalty from their followers and deliver to prime ministerial candidates ready-made blocs of voters.

Religious or secular state

Many observers argue that the real struggle in Israel is between ultra-orthodox and secular Israelis.

Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem
The main division in Israeli society is between Orthodox and secular Jews
Israel is a state in which some citizens see themselves as living a modern European or North American-style existence, while others believe they are in the Holy Land awaiting the Messiah.

Some ultra-orthodox Jews do not even recognise the authority of the state of Israel, nor its right to exist.

The tension between these two extremes defines much of Israeli politics. It is particularly acute not when it comes to the peace process, but in the domestic sphere.

Secular Israelis deeply resent the control of the rabbis on their day-to-day lives.

And one of the most important symbols of this is the monopoly the rabbis have over recognising marriages.

Equally, the Israeli rabbinate is yet to recognise as Jewish hundreds of thousands of Russian immigrants who have been living in the country for more than a decade.

'Tribal' loyalties

After 50 years of the state of Israel, relations between Jews of Middle Eastern origin, the Sephardim, and Jews of European origin, the Ashkenazis, still generate a great deal of tension in Israeli politics.

Shas spiritual leader Ovadia Yosef
The spiritual leader of the Shas, Ovadia Yosef, is now a powerful political figure
Primarily, the Sephardim resent the dominance of Jews of European origin in the Israeli establishment. Perhaps even more damaging is the harsh welcome given to Sephardim settling in Israel.

They accuse the Ashkenazi of showing no respect for their particular traditions and customs, of trying to turn them into Europeans, and of treating them as second-class citizens.

This split in Israeli society caused the country's first great domestic political upheaval in 1977 when Menachem Begin was elected largely by Sephardi voters who were sick of the Ashkenazi elite. The election threw the Labour Party out of power for the first time since the foundation of the state.

The split has remained to this day, with the majority of Sephardis showing an almost tribal loyalty to the Likud, and more recently to the Shas party.

Special interest politics

Shas is a party that has 17 seats in the current Israeli Knesset (parliament) and is growing.

The party is also an example of a recent development in Israeli politics - the evolution of political parties that draw on specific communities for their support and are interested in specific political issues.

Natan Sharansky, Russian immigrant leader
Natan Sharansky can count on the loyalty of the Russian immigrant voters

Shas is almost exclusively supported at election time by Orthodox Sephardim and is interested above all in a single political issue - gaining influence in the education ministry in order to get backing for its network of religious schools.

The party's spiritual leader, former Sephardic chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef, is now a man of immense power because he can effectively urge a large bloc of loyal supporters to vote one way or another.

Similarly, Yisrael B'Aliya, the party founded by former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, can draw on the support of the vast majority of Russian immigrants to Israel.

Both Shas and Yisrael B'Aliya have used their solid backing to good effect. They have broken the left-right mould of Israeli politics by siding with whichever side offers them the best deal.

Arab Israelis

Alienated from much of Israeli social and political life are the Israeli Arabs, who make up a little under 20% of the Israeli population.

Clashes in Nazareth in September
Israeli Arabs clashed with the Israeli security forces in September
Arab parties have traditionally campaigned for particular issues such as equal rights before the law and better funding for schools and hospitals.

The Labour Party can traditionally rely on the the votes garnered by Arab parties.

The current uprising, which began in late September, has put Israeli Arabs in a more difficult position than usual at election time.

Israel's caretaker Prime Minister and Labour leader Ehud Barak lost the certain backing of Arab voters because of his handling of the uprising.

The peace process

The search for Middle East peace used to divide Israeli politics cleanly down the middle.

The Labour Party was more likely to pursue the peace process more vigorously, and Likud could be counted on to be more hawkish.

The role of the peace process in Israeli politics is now different, and this division has been blurred.

Labour leaders have been able to win over a majority of Israeli voters only by being hawkish on certain issues such as security for Israelis and settlement building, whilst at the same time promising to pursue peace.

The example of recent Labour leaders, Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak, seems to show that a leader of the left who pursues peace successfully will draw more support at election time.

On the other hand, a leader who tries but fails to make peace, will be damned by the right for trying and damned by the left, his natural constituency, for failing.

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08 Jan 01 | Middle East
In pictures: Israelis march on Jerusalem
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