Looking back on the front pages of Israeli newspapers over the last couple of weeks, it is hard not to be astonished by the speed in which the issue of exclusion of women due to ultra-Orthodox sensitivities has become the main topic of the day.
In some ways it mirrors the trajectory of the social protests on Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard last summer: A campaign that would normally have stirred little interest to raise it out of obscurity was swiftly propelled by the Israeli media to prominence, becoming in the process a mass movement capable of bringing out hundreds of thousands of protesters onto the streets.
The press loved the Rothschild Summer for three main reasons. First, it supplied a story that was both sexy - young, attractive people camping out in the middle of Tel Aviv - and exhibited the news organizations' newly discovered social conscience at the same time. Second, the timing was perfect, at the beginning of the "silly season" in which hard news is hard to come by and the media is gasping for a story to boost sales and ratings through the dry summer. Third, it opened a whole new avenue of Bibi-bashing for the majority of journalists hostile to the current government.
Netanyahu managed to reverse the plummeting of his popularity over the summer with a successful appearance at United Nations General Assembly, (thanks mainly to Barack Obama ) and the extraordinarily fortunate timing of the Gilad Shalit deal that boosted him back up to the highest ratings he has enjoyed in this government's term. According to reliable reports he is now planning early elections, sometime this year, to take advantage of this spurt of public popularity before a global recession or diplomatic pressure pushes his ratings down again.
There was no way he could see this coming. Young women being abused on buses by Haredi men for daring to sit at the front is hardly a new phenomenon, and images of women on advertising posters were being defaced and censored in Jerusalem already in the 1980s. Neither is the clash between the IDF's attempts to integrate both female and ultra-Orthodox soldiers into units throughout the military a new source of tension. It was already an issue when I was inducted 20 years ago.
All this seems to be making the headlines now for much the same reasons Rothschild did six months ago: It's sexy, there isn't much else happening in Israel right now, and it allows the media to stick it to Netanyahu and his coalition with the ultra-Orthodox parties. Netanyahu could still backtrack from his election plans and try and flog the exhausted horse of his coalition until mid-2013, and of course the media will find other matters to deal with asides from female exclusion in the coming months. But the intriguing possibility of an election fought over social battle lines - with religion and social justice, rather than the future of the settlements, being the main dividing factors - is intriguing. Based on current polling data, few, if any, political commentators are prepared to bet against a Netanyahu victory.
Throughout the last three years, his religious-right coalition has commanded a lead in the polls that Kadima and the other splintered remnants of the opposition have struggled ineffectually to erode. Most Likud voters nowadays are middle-class and secular or traditional, and Bibi's traditional alliance with the religious and ultra-Orthodox parties may turn out to be his most vulnerable spot - in many ways, it brought about his downfall in 1999.
If religious issues come to dominate the next election, it will certainly not be in Netanyahu's favor and there will be a delicious irony to that, as Bibi's current strategy for remaining in power is based on religious extremism. He relies on the growing ranks of Jewish religious extremists in Israel to continue propping up his coalition, and on their ideological counterparts in the Diaspora to provide financial and vocal support for the right-wing view that Israel can do no wrong, shutting out other Jewish voices which believe that Netanyahu and his predecessors have a share of the blame for the situation we are in. He needs the specter of Islamic extremism, in the shape of the Islamist parties that have been winning elections in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco, to reinforce the Israel-cannot-budge-because-all-the-Arabs-around-us-hate-us rhetoric, which excuses his inaction on the diplomatic front and Israel's growing isolation.
And he is banking on the Christian religious extremists in the United States to topple his nemesis Obama this November.
Indeed, 2012 could become the year of religion. In Israel, the wider Middle East and the United States, religious leaders and religious parties will play a central role in political developments and the faith and faith-related policies of candidates will become a major election issue and primary consideration for many voters. Netanyahu is certainly banking on that - but it could backfire on him drastically. The campaign against undue Haredi influence in the Knesset and religious extremism on the streets and buses of Israel could gather steam and lead to a public momentum that would chip away secular votes from Netanyahu and the right-wing block.
The swing necessary to deny him another term in office is not major - losing three or four Knesset seats is all it would take. And if Netanyahu manages to win the election in Israel, or decides to hold them in 2013, he could still lose the American election due to religious extremism. The Christian fundamentalists may not be able to marshal enough support for Mitt Romney the Mormon, or Newt Gingrich the lapsed Catholic, or their attacks on Obama could turn off many Americans. Either way, whoever emerges as the Republican candidate, if Obama gets four more years in the Oval Office, free from electoral constraints and with a justified feeling of vindication against the foreign leader who aligned himself so clearly with his political rivals, Netanyahu will be the loser.
An Obama administration in 2013 will mean a whole new ball game in the Middle East. If a fairly stable government emerges by then in Egypt, dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood party and allied with both Hamas in Gaza and Erdogan's AK party in Turkey, an American decision to negotiate with Hamas is not inconceivable. What will Bibi say then to Obama - that you can't talk with religious extremists?
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