Israeli President Chaim Herzog, in a rare intervention in politics, criticized statements by an ultra-Orthodox rabbi who is pivotal to forming the next government and called for urgent electoral reform.
Rabbis, exploiting their sudden political leverage, reaped an unprecedented bonanza when Parliament early Friday approved a budget allocating three times more money to religious institutions than in 1989.
“In the light of present political events, I once again publicly express my opinion on the urgent need for change in the electoral system,” Herzog said in his monthly radio talk.
He criticized comments earlier this week by 96-year-old Rabbi Eliezer Schach, spiritual mentor of the Shas (Sephardi Torah Guardians) and Degel Hatora (Flag of the Torah) parties, against the secular Israeli left and the kibbutz collective settlements.
Without naming Schach, he spoke of a “tendency to besmirch through generalization entire groups” and said Israel does not realize how much it owes to the kibbutzim , or collective farms. Schach’s remarks were widely seen as a blow to efforts by Labor Party leader Shimon Peres for a coalition to launch peace talks with the Palestinians, based on a U.S. proposal.
Ultra-Orthodox rabbis have become central figures in Israel’s political arena since the collapse of a 15-month coalition, led by Likud Party chief Yitzhak Shamir, over that peace proposal. Four religious parties, with 18 of the 120 seats in the Knesset (Parliament), hold the key to a new coalition government.
At the same time, Parliament voted a record $111 million for ultra-Orthodox schools and welfare institutions. The amount surpassed the $100 million squeezed into the budget at the last minute to build houses for a flood of Soviet immigrants due in Israel this year.
Angry leftist legislators called the allocation an attempt by both Labor and Likud to court the religious right.
Meantime, thousands of Israeli Arabs and Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West bank and Gaza Strip on Friday attended rallies and observed general strikes to mark the 14th anniversary of “Land Day,” when riots broke out over Israeli confiscation of Arab land. Extra police and soldiers were deployed to prevent unrest surrounding the anniversary.