Can Israel have civil marriage without peace?


This has been a rocky week for Israel’s governing coalition. First, the second stage of Israel’s Palestinian prisoner release pitted Economy Minister Bennett and his pro-settler Jewish Home party against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who chalked the release up to “navigating a complex international arena.” Bennett’s proposed law to prohibit future prisoner releases was defeated in the Cabinet by a vote of 8 to 5.

Two days later, Jewish Home was back in the news — this time for opposing a bill that would institute civil unions in Israel. Introduced by centrist coalition partner Yesh Atid, the bill would strip Israel’s Orthodox rabbinate of its monopoly over Jewish marriage — something the Modern Orthodox Jewish Home won’t stomach.

Jewish Home, which holds 12 Knesset seats, signed onto the coalition on the condition that any member party be able to veto any changes to the state’s religious status quo. For Bennett, that veto power will look especially valuable now.

Religious pluralism activists have told me for months that this coalition — devoid of haredi parties — presents a golden opportunity to advance religious reforms that have thus far foundered in the Knesset. But though Bennett is committed to streamlining Israel’s religious services, Jewish Home shares with the haredi parties a staunch opposition to civil marriage.

There is one hope for civil marriage advocates — and it lies at the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating table. Jewish Home has so far accepted this round of peace talks, but if it looks like a deal is imminent, Bennett’s faction would sooner bolt the government than abet the rise of a Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria.

Jewish Home’s exit would leave the door open for Labor to take its place — a move that would save the coalition and, in turn, a possible peace treaty. And with Jewish Home gone, civil marriage could enjoy a clearer legislative path.

But of course such scenarios are highly hypothetical. In addition to  Netanyahu’s tendency toward political caution, it’s not as if an Israeli-Palestinian breakthrough is necessarily waiting around the corner. If civil marriage supporters are going to have to wait for peace, they may be waiting for a while.

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