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Netanyahu’s religious emergency

March 23, 2010

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confronted a new emergency just as he made amends with Washington over a plan for more Jewish settler housing in occupied land.

The new crisis was over an issue regarding which there is even less consensus in Israel than on how to resolve the conflict with Palestinians — an ever-widening social divide between Israel’s ultra-Orthodox and its secular Jewish citizens.

Opposition parties and newspaper headlines screamed outrage at a decision taken by Netanyahu’s cabinet on Sunday to postpone construction of a new wing for trauma medicine at Barzilai Hospital in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, an area often targetted by Palestinian militants firing rockets from the Gaza Strip.

The reason for the delay?

Ultra-orthodox leaders, whose political parties are important political allies of Netanyahu’s, had lobbied to halt construction citing evidence of ancient graves at the site. A recommended compromise called for placing the new emergency room a bit farther from the hospital, in what is now a parking lot, where presumably no other ancient remains have been found.

Critics exclaimed that the consequential delay of up to three years in building the new facility, which the cabinet had approved and the reported extra price tag of tens of thousands of Israeli shekels (dollars) — the cost of moving the site– would amount to an intolerable waste of public funds.

Opposition lawmakers mustered enough signatures to call an emergency session of Israel’s Parliament to try and vote down the government. Doctors drew up angry petitions demanding the government give more priority to the needs of medicine.

Netanyahu, already in Washington for meetings with President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in addition to a speech to the pro-Israel AIPAC lobby, nonetheless responded to the furor, by delaying on Monday any implementation of the cabinet’s resolution of the previous day, pending a further investigation by experts.

Some Israeli commentators criticised his about-face on a decision they thought he shouldn’t have made to begin with.

“He has folded,” screamed a headline in the Maariv tabloid daily. The newspaper’s competitor, Yedioth Ahronoth, took a predictable opposite tack, its leading columnist Nahum Barnea opining, “he didn’t fold, he came to his senses.”

Eitan Haber, once spokesman for the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, wrote that he hoped the controversy had sparked enough outrage to persuade politicians to roll back the influence of ultra-Orthodox religious parties in government.

Two ultra-Orthodox religious parties hold swing votes in Netanyahu’s coalition, one of them represented in the cabinet by a deputy health minister, said to have been the one responsible for pressuring to move the planned emergency room.

Political parties representing ultra-Orthodox constituents have held cabinet seats in most Israeli governments since the 1970′s. This reality has given some very conservative rabbis much more influence than their numbers in Israel’s population, where the fervently devout are a minority.

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If the Jews help Gentiles they become Christians.

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