The recent general election in Israel, the second this year, has confirmed the country’s political gridlock. Veteran prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been left with no obvious majority, but it will be even more difficult for his opponents to secure one.
The major dividing line, apart from the divisive figure of Netanyahu, has been religion. Avigdor Lieberman, the Netanyahu ally turned enemy who represents Russian-speaking Israelis, refuses to join a coalition that includes ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties. More specifically, he wants to end the ultra-Orthodox exemption from compulsory military service. The religious parties, without which nobody can form a majority, are fiercely defending their position against this and other secularist proposals.
Should Lieberman’s views win out, this would have an immediate impact on Israel’s tiny Catholic population. Though politically marginal, the Church benefits from the state delegating certain personal issues, including marriage and divorce law, to religious authorities – primarily Jewish, but also Muslim and Christian. But the marriage law has long been controversial among Israeli Jews, the majority of whom are not strictly observant and resent the power of Orthodox rabbis.
In the longer term, the roughly 200,000 Catholics in Israel and the Palestinian territories remain under demographic and political pressure. There are many expatriate religious in the Holy Land, and Tel Aviv has a large population of Filipino migrant workers. But the bulk of the permanently resident Catholic population are Palestinian Arabs. Not only are the Arabs a minority in Israel, but Christians are also a minority within the mostly Muslim Arab community, with Catholics in turn being outnumbered by Greek Orthodox. Most Catholics belong to the Melkite Greek Catholic Church rather than the Latin Rite.
The community’s future depends on the peace process, and the Vatican has often sought to be a facilitator. But these efforts evaporate as Washington is the only broker with real power in the region. The Church has been keeping a low profile on the issue recently, and the office of Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem has been vacant for three years, depriving local Catholics of an authoritative voice.