Rival religious parties acting in harmony since election

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JERUSALEM — The sight of Israel's three religious parties sitting down together and coordinating positions has caught much of the country by surprise. From whence springs the sudden harmony?

Are these the same Shas, National Religious Party and United Torah Judaism that, over the last four years, have demonstrated against each other's rabbis and written scurrilously about one another in each other's newspapers?

Are these the religious parties that historically have fought tooth and nail during coalition negotiations, trying to get the best deal for their own religious constituents?

Yes, but the circumstances have changed a great deal.

First of all, each of the parties knows that it is going to join the coalition, and that one party's gain will not necessarily be the other's loss.

If Shas gets the Interior Ministry, this does not mean that the National Religions Party will be boxed out of the Education Ministry, or vice-versa. United Torah Judaism getting a deputy housing minister will not come at the expense of either the Sephardi or national religious public.

Both Shas and the NRP came out of the elections as winners, and UTJ maintained its strength. As a group, they came out victors. They realize that collectively they wield a great deal of clout, and there is no reason for one to try to trip up the other.

No party will get any more by rushing to be the first to sign up with Prime Minister-elect Benjamin Netanyahu.

Secondly, since Shas and the NRP did so well at the polls, they can afford to be generous with each other. "Victors are generous," an NRP activist said. "Those who are not so sure about themselves are always looking to see what the other guy got."

Thirdly, the religious public wants unity. The coalition talks are not the first time the three parties have sat down together this year. Before the election, the leaders of the parties conducted negotiations about forming a united religious bloc.

Meretz and its stridently anti-religious line over the past four years brought the parties together. The feeling was that there was more that united the parties — a desire to preserve the Jewish character of the state — than divided them: ideological differences over Zionism, serving in the army and the importance of Greater Israel.

These negotiations were popular with the religious public, with polls at the time saying that if the parties ran together they would garner 17 to 19 seats, up three from the 16 they had in the last Knesset. The bloc was not formed and ironically perhaps without the bloc, they gained 23 seats.

But these talks broke psychological barriers, and helped pave the way for cooperation after the elections.