Lapid takes on the religious status quo

Yesh Atid demands public transportation on weekends, civil marriage and easing of conversion process

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid at the assembly hall of the Knesset in Jerusalem on February 12 (photo credit: Flash90)
Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid at the assembly hall of the Knesset in Jerusalem on February 12 (photo credit: Flash90)

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid is demanding major changes to Israel’s religious status quo as part of coalition negotiations with Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-Beytenu team.

As coalition talks raced towards the finish line and the focus seemed to shift from policy issues to personnel considerations, news emerged Wednesday that Lapid, who campaigned as a harbinger of change, has insisted that the new government usher in wider public transportation on Shabbat, the establishment of civil marriage and the easing of conversion processes, all shifts that would remake the so-called “status quo” on religious issues, and all anathema to the country’s ultra-Orthodox community.

Yesh Atid is interested in reforming the religious status quo, a fragile combination of national legislation and municipal bylaws which has been shaped over several decades, and seeing in changes that will benefit its largely liberal and secular constituency.

Yesh Atid had already clearly signaled its intent on that front, partnering with the national religious Jewish Home party to push for a commitment from Netanyahu to support new legislation mandating the conscription of ultra-Orthodox men into military or national service. But it remains to be seen whether Netanyahu is willing to endorse significant change in the secularist fight, even after all but giving up on including the ultra-Orthodox parties in the coalition.

According to Yesh Atid sources quoted in a Maariv report, the party demands that the government enable public transportation to operate far more widely on weekends, albeit at a lesser scale than during the week. Currently, public transportation in most parts of the country ceases between Friday afternoon and Saturday evening.

Further demands are that the state establish civil marriage for those forbidden or unwilling to wed under Jewish law, the easing of conversion requirements and changes in the country’s Chief Rabbinate. While these issues are predominantly of a religious nature, Israel’s blurred separation of church and state means the government plays a large role in making such decisions.

The demands will likely meet no objections from Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu faction, which has championed some of the same causes in the past, but it is less clear how well they will sit with political ally Jewish Home’s Naftali Bennett, whose core constituency is made up of observant Jews.

What’s clear is that any such changes to the status quo would signal a fight with the Haredi leadership. Members of the ultra-Orthodox parties have already accused Lapid of delegitimizing their community in light of his refusal to sit in the government with them.

“I do not believe that Shas and United Torah Judaism can sit in a government that will achieve the changes for which we went to elections: changing the criteria for housing subsidies, core curriculum studies for all, equal share of the burden, and the necessary cuts in yeshiva budgets,” Lapid said Saturday.

The Maariv report stated that so far no agreements have been reached in the Likud-Yesh Atid talks on these issues, but that negotiations were scheduled to ramp up in the coming days, with Netanyahu hoping to swear in a new government by the beginning of next week.

One of the parties apparently doomed to remain outside Netanyahu’s emergent coalition is the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism, which on Tuesday requested to dissolve the Knesset and go to another round of elections, citing the lack of experience among those expected to handle the reins of power over the next term. Netanyahu has signaled to Shas that it is also unlikely to be offered a coalition partnership.

It is unthinkable that “Israel will be managed by inexperienced people motivated by hatred,” read the petition filed by UTJ MK Uri Maklev — a reference to the perception that Yesh Atid and Jewish Home “boycotted” the ultra-Orthodox parties during coalition talks.

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