JERUSALEM, Feb. 16 (JTA) — On the face of it — a paradox. One of the largest outdoor mass gatherings in Israeli history, held at the height of an election campaign — and all three leading candidates for prime minister stayed away. Sunday’s two opposing rallies in Jerusalem — a vast Orthodox prayer demonstration against the Supreme Court that drew some 250,000 people and, nearby, a smaller counter-demonstration of an estimated 50,000 in support of the embattled justices — held the country spellbound and attracted worldwide media attention. But Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and Yitzhak Mordechai all cited pressing previous engagements that made their appearance at either or both of these mass assemblies impossible. Though seemingly strange, their actions were understandable, given the complex, mine-strewn political ramifications of Sunday’s events. After all, a national election is set for May 17, and where the increasingly powerful Orthodox electorate throws its support remains a critical question. The grievances that brought a quarter of a million mostly fervently Orthodox — but also many modern Orthodox — into the streets of the capital center mainly on the ongoing battle for religious pluralism. The Supreme Court, in a series of rulings, has sided with the Reform and Conservative movements in their struggle to gain official recognition in Israel. The cases pertain primarily to non-Orthodox representation on local religious councils and to registration of non-Orthodox converts. More such cases are pending. For the Orthodox, this is anathema, because it means extending official recognition to denominations of Judaism that they consider heretical. The breadth and strength of such feeling accounts for the unprecedented cohesion of the Orthodox camp. Indeed, Chasidic rebbes were joined by the chief rabbis of the state as well as the leading rabbis of the National Religious movement on the prayer podium Sunday. The universal cry among the Orthodox is against the judicial activism of the Supreme Court, and especially of its president, Chief Justice Aharon Barak. The Orthodox maintain that state-and-religion issues should be settled in the court of public opinion and in the legislature — not in the courts. For their part, the non-Orthodox movements maintain they must appeal to the courts because of the inordinate political power of the Orthodox. For Netanyahu, as indeed for many inside the Orthodox camp itself, a vituperative attack on the court last week by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of the powerful Shas Party, was cause to cringe. The rabbi, in a lesson with his students, poured abuse and invective on the judges, calling them among things “oppressors of Jews.” The next day, Netanyahu spoke against intemperate language by both sides. He urged restraint. He urged, if at all possible, that the planned demonstration be abandoned or at least postponed. If the state-and-religion strife did not abate, he said, it would threaten the future of both the state and the religion. But that was as far as the prime minister cared — or dared — to go. While his minister of justice, Tzachi Hanegbi, attended and spoke at the pro-court demonstration, Netanyahu preferred to follow the proceeding from afar. He said later that he was engaged in ongoing steps to promote dialogue and conciliation. He is trying to set up a forum for dialogue that would include past members of the Supreme Court, both Orthodox and secular. For Netanyahu, to alienate even part of the Orthodox constituency could be fatal for his re-election chances. In 1996, when he won office by a margin of less than 40,000 votes, virtually the entire Orthodox community voted for him as premier. The same is especially true for Yitzhak Mordechai, the leader of the newly created centrist party who seceded from Likud and joined the fray as a prime ministerial candidate. Mordechai, a Sephardi born in Iraq to Kurdish Jewish parents, who is traditional in his private life, represents an attractive alternative for some Orthodox and traditional voters, especially Shas Party loyalists who otherwise would tend toward Netanyahu. Which was why, no doubt, Mordechai chose to be in Afula on some urgent and undeferrable business on Sunday just when the two opposing rallies were taking place. Mordechai, too, had urged the Orthodox to call off their protest. But having apparently failed, he saw no profit in showing up on one side or the other — or both — of the great divide. The candidate who is being most sternly criticized for his absence on Sunday is Labor Party leader Ehud Barak. Critics say Barak himself should have led the pro-court rally. If Likud’s Hanegbi and Rafael Eitan of the far-right party Tsomet could come — as well as large numbers of Meretz and other Labor politicians — why couldn’t the Labor leader? He isn’t going to get any Orthodox votes anyway, these critics contend. For the modern Orthodox, he is too soft on the territories. And he has alienated the fervently Orthodox by advocating that yeshiva students be forced to serve in the army. But Barak defended his decision. The battle for the soul of the state, he said, will be decided at the ballot box — and he intends to win it there. “I know what I’m doing,” Barak assured friend and foe alike on Sunday, “and where it’s best for me to be.” Indeed, where he was was at a well-photographed meeting with Natan Sharansky, the minister of industry and trade and the Yisrael Ba’Aliyah leader, and Rabbi Yehuda Amital, the leader of the moderate Orthodox movement, Meimad. The agenda there, too, was dialogue and conciliation. Barak has not given up on the Orthodox, at least the moderates among them. He wants Meimad as part of his “One Israel” movement which, he hopes, will incorporate Labor with a number of smaller movements. Indeed Barak had another reason for his absence — one which nearly knocked the wind from his critics’ sails. He had asked to speak at the Orthodox demonstration — to defend the Supreme Court — but was told there would be no speeches, just prayer.