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Israel Elections Highlight Its Fractious Society - 2003-01-24

The recent Israeli elections point up complexities of a nation divided along many different lines. The electoral system both reflects and contributes to these divisions.

In the January election, Israel returned to its old system of proportional representation, in which voters cast ballots for a party instead of individual candidates. The head of the party tat won the most seats became prime miniter; namely, the Likud's Ariel Sharon, who retains his office.

"We have a mosaic, a complex pattern - religious as well as secular - within Israel today," according to Milton Viorst, author of "What Shall I do With This People?", a new book on the history of the fractious politics of Judaism, both in Israel and in the Diaspora.

Mr. Viorst said Israel is divided along many different lines, including religious, cultural and ethnic. Diverse groups living in Israel form and switch political alliances as the need arises, but they are also in frequent conflict with one another.

"Nobody has one single motive. Everybody involved here has a duality or triality of motives which are playing against each other," Mr. Viorst said.

Israel has a population of some 6 million people, about 80% of them Jews. The remaining 20% are mainly Arabs. Smaller minorities include Christians, Druze and other non-Jews.

As Jews come from different parts of the world, they are culturally and ethnically very diverse. Two major groups are the Ashkenazi of European origin and the Sephardim of North African and the Middle Eastern.

The Ashkenazi generally consider themselves the founding pioneers and the cultural and political elite of Israel. They are generally more educated and make more money, and they have traditionally supported a secular state and held leading positions in the army, government and economy.

Mr. Yetiv said in times of peace, they tend to support the Labor Party. But like most Israelis, they shift to hardliners when they feel threatened from the outside.

"Even though polls show that most of them agree that Israel should curtail building settlements, trim them back and engage in the peace talks with the Palestinians, what polling suggests is that they are not following their intellectual beliefs when they say who they are going to vote for." Mr. Viorst said. "In other words, they are voting with emotion for Likud, even though intellectually they agree with the position of Amran Mitzna from Haifa who leads Labor."

Sephardic Jews came later, during the 1950's and 1970's, usually with very little money or education. They have traditionally held manual and blue-collar jobs. Despite efforts to close the gap with Ashkenazi, Sephardic Jews still make about 50 percent less income and have three times fewer academic graduates.

Traditionally, Sephardic Jews have also been more religious. The Sephardic-based Shas party, today the third largest in Israel, has positioned itself as the enemy of the Ashkenazi elite.

Yosi Shain, professor of political science at Tel Aviv University, said not all the Sephardim vote for the Shas Party.

"Many of the Sephardic Jews also vote for the Likud mostly, and vote for the Labor, but also for many other parties. So there is a wide spread of voting," he said.

In addition to Jews who were born in Israel, new immigrants keep arriving from all over the world. Russian Jews who moved to Israel after the collapse of the Soviet Union and Jews from Morocco are the largest of the new groups.

Mr. Shain says post-Soviet Jews now make up almost 20 percent of Israel's Jews. "We have seen in the last decade that the post-Soviet Jewry, which is the most volatile crowd, has been shifting alliances according to day's, what I would call, rational choice," Mr. Shain said. "It's a kind of affiliation with who will improve their life, who will improve their living and so on. And so they shifted gears from Labor to Likud, to right to left and so on."

There are also some 400,000 illegal settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Most are from Europe and America. A smaller percentage come from Asia.

Religion is one of the most divisive forces in Israel, according to author Milton Viorst.

"What has happened in Israel is that Orthodoxy is profoundly divided now, and it is divided between those whose concerns are only religious and think of themselves only as the people who want to preserve the religion such as it was in the 17th century and before that," he said. "And then there is another group of what are called religious Zionists, who take their religion from Judaism and their nationalism from Zionism and who have combined to make this into a religiously motivated political movement."

Most of these ultra-orthodox Jews, said Milton Viorst, support a theocratic Jewish state with rabbis officiating at marriages, births and deaths and even deciding who can be a Jew and who cannot.

Ultra-religious Jews, devoted to study and teaching of Judaism, receive many benefits from the state, such as exemptions from tax and military service, support for their schools and welfare for their families. Politicians wanting their votes promise to continue providing those benefits.

Mr. Viorst said the majority of Jews are moderately religious or not religious at all. They want to slash the support for settlers and ultra-religious Jews, which they feel is draining Israel's economy. Most of them are also willing to trade land for peace with the Palestinians -- a red flag for some of the ultra-orthodox and Zionist groups.

Israeli Arabs are Palestinians who remained on the land that became Israel in 1948. The recent escalating violence has deepened the old mistrust between Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews. Arabs have their own political parties and representatives in the Knesset, but often co-operate with the Labor Party in order to be included in decision-making.

Tensions among various factions in Israel are high, but political scientist Steve Yetiv says they would be even higher without the current threat of terrorism.

"Someone once said that Israel would be torn asunder if there were not a huge Arab threat and terrorism," he said. "And that is because - while there are common threads of the Jewish experience and the common language and many things that are common - there's also a very diverse, much more diverse than in the United States, political spectrum and quite a lot of emotion attached to the different views that exist."

Mr. Yetiv says the two main issues that divide Israelis at the moment are the financial support for ultra-orthodox Jews and settlers, and the return to the negotiating table with the Palestinians. Next week's elections will show whether they are tired of the status quo.