News Analysis: Three religious parties pushing their agenda

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JERUSALEM — Bolstered by their strong showing in the Knesset elections, Israel's three Orthodox parties are poised to play a pivotal role in the government of Prime Minister-elect Benjamin Netanyahu and in the new parliament.

The National Religious Party, Shas and United Torah Judaism, which together won 23 Knesset seats, have been far from timid as they conduct negotiations with Netanyahu to secure ministerial positions in the Cabinet and commitments to allocate more resources, especially in education and housing, for their religious constituencies.

To be sure, they fully expect that their demands will be whittled down to something their prospective secular coalition partners — Likud, Yisrael Ba'Aliyah and The Third Way — can live with.

But as they press their demands, the religious parties appear to be employing the logic of a Chassidic tale:

In the story, a poor Chassidic man complains to his rebbe about the extreme conditions of overcrowding in which his family is forced to live.

"Do you have a goat?" the rebbe asks.

The man confirms that he does.

"Bring him into the house to live with you, too," the rebbe commands.

Some time later, the man returns, complaining even more bitterly about his domestic conditions.

"Remove the goat," is the command this time.

The next day, the Chassid is back to thank the rebbe and to report that with the goat out, things at home feel immeasurably more comfortable.

The goat tale applies to Knesset horse-trading as well.

In the ongoing coalition negotiations, the religious parties are pressing a crowded list of demands that include:

*Legislation to make permanent the "status quo" by which the Orthodox have a virtual monopoly over religious life in Israel.

*Forbidding the sale of pork.

*Stricter legislation on abortions.

*Tightening the Law of Return to bar people whose Jewishness is deemed suspect from immigrating to Israel.

*Passing a "Basic Law," which would become part of a yet-to-be-completed Israeli constitution, on the Jewishness of Israel, defining Israel as the state of the Jewish people.

Yisrael Ba'Aliyah Party leader Natan Sharansky has made it clear that tampering with the Law of Return would drive his party and its seven Knesset seats out of the coalition fold. With Likud only holding 32 seats, Netanyahu will need Sharansky.

To make the Cabinet feel more comfortable, the Orthodox parties may drop some of their demands as a coalition agreement takes shape. But where the Orthodox parties intend to stand firm is in their battle against the Reform and Conservative movements.

Specifically, the Orthodox parties demand legislation that will state categorically that all conversions to Judaism carried out in Israel must be done under the aegis of the state's Orthodox chief rabbinate.

That demand comes in the wake of a recent ruling by the High Court of Justice that non-Orthodox conversions in Israel are not prohibited. The court urged the Knesset to create specific legislation on this matter, but no action was taken by the outgoing Knesset.

Now, with the Orthodox a powerful force in the new Knesset, the anticipated law will almost certainly rule out Conservative or Reform conversions performed in Israel.

The High Court ruled some years ago that non-Orthodox conversions carried out abroad are valid in Israel, and that someone thus converted must be registered as Jewish. That ruling is not currently under attack.

But as another prong of their strategy, the Orthodox parties may also seek measures that would effectively exclude Reform or Conservative members from local religious councils.

The religious councils, supervised by the Religious Affairs Ministry, have exclusive jurisdiction over marriage, kashrut, burial and other religious matters for all Jews living in Israel.

Steps to stem religious pluralism, say some liberal American Jewish community leaders, could affect ties to U.S. Jewry as well, and even hurt fund-raising.

For his part, Netanyahu has made it clear he does not oppose some of those steps. He has told various groups of American non-Orthodox rabbis and laymen that, in his view, Israel is not ready for religious pluralism.

He also made it clear that a government under his leadership would shelve many of the aspirations of the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism for greater influence and recognition.

On matters of religious observance, the Orthodox say they do not want to create an atmosphere of coercion.

Nevertheless, they are demanding stricter enforcement of Sabbath observance. There is talk of reviving a Sabbath observance squad of inspectors, under the Ministry of Labor, that tickets shops and businesses illegally operating on the day of rest.

Just after the election, some religious forces began seeking to close the McDonald's eatery in Jerusalem, which serves cheeseburgers.

There are also calls for more rigid enforcement of the requirement that public transportation services resume only when the Sabbath has ended. In recent years, some bus services have operated Saturday afternoons.

Most importantly, in the long term, is the Orthodox parties' determination to put a brake on what the president of the Supreme Court, Justice Aharon Barak, has termed Israel's "constitutional revolution."

Barak, who is seen as a bastion of liberalism — the Orthodox say anti-Orthodoxy — was referring to a series of Basic Laws passed by the Knesset in recent years on broad issues of human and civil rights that one day would be part of Israel's constitution.

The Orthodox are uncomfortable with some of those laws, fearing they could be construed as impinging on religious practice or limiting religious law.

With the Orthodox parties now set to play so crucial a role in government and in the Knesset, the legislative process is sure to slow down.

For those parties, the most important outcome of their electoral successes and of the coalition talks will be the accumulation of power and resources for their respective communities.

The ultra-religious Sephardi Shas Party, with 10 seats in the new Knesset, believes it has the potential to double its number of followers — if its Ma'ayan HaTorah school system is adequately funded.

Shas activists feel that schooling and extracurricular activities for children and their parents are the movement's great drawing points among most Sephardim.

The nine-seat NRP, whose leader, Zevulun Hammer, is poised to return to his role in the 1980s as education minister, is also determined to boost the state's religious-educational network, which is broadly affiliated with the religious Zionist movement, the NRP's base.

The Orthodox parties also want their own state-supported television and radio stations, arguing that most of the mass media is not suitable for their ideological and educational needs.

All three parties are confident that promoting the interests of Israel's growing Orthodox population will do more than defend Jewish values. They believe their efforts will help ensure they do even better in the next elections, in the year 2000.