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Has Israel's secular majority been abandoned by politicians?

While Israel argues over train maintenance on the Sabbath, Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid is not leading the battle against religious coercion but avoiding clashes with the ultra-Orthodox for his personal political interests.
Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid (C) walks with supporters as he campaigns in the southern city of Ashdod March 15, 2015. The era of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is ending, with Israeli voters clearly more concerned about economic and social issues than about security or fears over Iran, Lapid said on Monday. Lapid, a telegenic former news anchor and TV host, leads the centrist, secular Yesh Atid party ("There's a Future"), which emerged out of the cost-of-living protests that swept Israel in 2011. Picture

No one in the political system meant for it to happen, yet a new Sabbath crisis erupted in the last two weeks over maintenance and repair work on Israel Railways. At the time of this writing, the crisis had ended with an ultra-Orthodox victory as Saturday work was canceled and with the Supreme Court criticizing Netanyahu for reinstating part of the work, which he was unauthorized to do.

In the transportation chaos that disrupted the country, with train service halted until maintenance work is finished, the voice of Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid was resoundingly silent. Until recently, Lapid had been the representative of the secular community, but this time left the secular public without an effective leader to fight for them.

True, it was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who capitulated to ultra-Orthodox demands and gave the order to postpone the maintenance work from the Sabbath itself to Saturday night. But Lapid also folded, turning his ideological banner into a white flag of surrender.

On Sept. 6, Lapid's gamble paid off: A Channel 2 survey indicated that Yesh Atid, headed by Lapid, currently has the most support.

In contrast, Meretz immediately emerged to fight for the status quo and sent activists to demonstrate against religious coercion. Lapid, however, found himself durng the crisis in a paralyzing Catch-22: How could he maintain his key political principles without harming his reconciliation attempts with the ultra-Orthodox parties? Lapid’s current working assumption is that ultra-Orthodox support is essential for him to assemble a coalition after the next elections. Therefore, it can be assumed that Lapid did not want this crisis, just as the heads of the ultra-Orthodox factions didn’t want it. Evidently Lapid preferred to let the crisis dissipate on its own and not jump on the bandwagon to lead a secular agenda again.

So how exactly did the crisis happen if no one wanted it? Maintenance work on Israel Railways has been carried out on Saturdays without disruption for years — with Netanyahu’s own authorization, as was revealed in the Israel Railways answer to a petition submitted by Meretz to the High Court of Justice. The ultra-Orthodox had preferred to turn a blind eye. However, the social media revolution, which has improved transparency in politics, has reached the heart of the ultra-Orthodox media as well. Ultra-Orthodox journalists and commentators have active, biting Twitter accounts that they persistently use to challenge the elected officials of the ultra-Orthodox world. Things that had once been out of sight are now visible to all. One tweet by Yaakov Rivlin, who writes for the Ba’kehila ultra-Orthodox newspaper, derided ultra-Orthodox politicians as “enablers” of Sabbath desecration, prompting these politicians to radicalize their positions to the point of threatening to dismantle the coalition.

When Netanyahu understood that the ultra-Orthodox had ratcheted up their demands, he deflected the blame and offered up his hated enemy as sacrificial victim — Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz. Netanyahu accused Katz of maliciously causing the whole crisis, claiming that Katz had attempted a putsch against him and was constantly trying to undermine him. This time, the prime minister said, Katz deceived the ultra-Orthodox when he gave the order for work on the Sabbath in violation of his previous promises.

Netanyahu knew that the pictures of soldiers trying to get back to their bases on Saturday night (the end of the weekend in Israel) by squeezing sardine-like into busses would do him great public relations harm among the general public. At the height of the crisis, Netanyahu was almost ready to fire Katz, and the media naturally focused on that angle until Sunday. By Sunday, it emerged that the prime minister had calmed a bit and contented himself with a publicized reprimand of the transportation minister at the beginning of the meeting.

The opinion polls published on Sunday explained why Netanyahu not only did not fire Katz but stopped feeding the flames under the transportation minister. Channel 2 reported that most of the public did not believe the prime minister and instead accepted Katz' version of the story. No less important, more than 60% of those polled were in favor of carrying out maintenance work on the railways on the Sabbath. To this we add the threats that Netanyahu received from high-ranking Likud members including Welfare Minister Haim Katz, who said that firing the transportation minister would likely cause additional senior Likud members to resign in protest.

While the Katz-Netanyahu confrontation has quieted for the time being, the crisis still looms on the agenda: The ultra-Orthodox are demanding the maintenance work planned for the upcoming Saturdays be stopped. Meanwhile, additional demands are cropping up, like that of Shas chairman and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, who wants to prohibit businesses from operating on Saturdays in Tel Aviv, the iconic hub of secular life in Israel.

While pressure from the ultra-Orthodox to add to the list of public activities forbidden on Saturdays is only increasing, Lapid is calmly violating the contractual agreement with the public that put him in the Knesset in the first place.

In his previous term of office, Lapid would have jumped at the chance to get involved in the Sabbath rail crisis. Instead, 2016 Lapid is doing everything he can to distance himself from it. Instead of taking a clear stance, Lapid blamed the prime minister for the crisis and avoided attacking the ultra-Orthodox. He did not stand at the head of the demonstrators, but embarked on a campaign to get the soldiers back to their bases, directed by Yesh Atid and manned by volunteers. But one does not need a political party for such a project. We would expect that someone who views himself as an alternative candidate for the premiership would produce a sharper statement.

In an interview Lapid granted to Channel 10 News on Sept. 4, he spent five minutes evading and side-stepping questions whose answers could have ruffled ultra-Orthodox feathers. When asked, “If you were prime minister, what would you do?” Lapid blamed the government for being too involved in itself and said that a political feud between Katz and Netanyahu led to the crisis in the first place. “It is a terrible thing,” he said. “They are turning the public into hostages.”

With these remarks, Lapid turned his back on the secular agenda that brought him to power in the first place — showing that at the end of the day, political calculations are what count most for him, much like Netanyahu. And this formula seems to be working.

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