Domestic Politics Dominate US South Asia Policy

"America is not - and never will be - at war with Islam," declared Barak Hussein Obama in a June, 2009 speech in Cairo that was billed as his administration's attempt to mend fences with the Muslim world. The speech was received enthusiastically by many Muslims, and it raised hopes of fundamental changes in US policies in the Middle East and South Asia.

Just a few months later, however, considerable doubts are growing in the Muslim world about President Obama's resolve to effectively and evenhandedly address the long-standing territorial disputes confronting the peoples of the Middle East and South Asia. The hopes for course correction in US policy on Kashmir and Palestine are fading fast with the Obama administration's dramatic retreat on both fronts.

After repeatedly emphasizing that Kashmir issue between India and Pakistan is inextricably linked to Afghanistan crisis, President Barack Obama backtracked on the need for resolving Kashmir when the issue was dropped from special envoy Richard Holbrooke's mandate under pressure from Indian lobby in Washington. According to Washington Post, India managed to "prune the portfolio of the Obama administration's top envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Richard C. Holbrooke -- basically eliminating the contested region of Kashmir from his job description".

In run-up to the last US presidential elections, it was widely known that Obama believes the situation in Afghanistan is inextricably linked to the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan. “The most important thing we’re going to have to do with respect to Afghanistan, is actually deal with Pakistan,” candidate Obama said in an interview on October 30, 2008 with MSNBC. “And we’ve got work with the newly elected government there in a coherent way that says, terrorism is now a threat to you. Extremism is a threat to you. We should probably try to facilitate a better understanding between Pakistan and India and try to resolve the Kashmir crisis so that they can stay focused not on India, but on the situation with those militants.”

Obama reiterated his emphasis on Kashmir in a December 7, 2008 interview on NBC's Meet The Press. He said, " I've said before, we can't continue to look at Afghanistan in isolation. We have to see it as a part of a regional problem that includes Pakistan, includes India, includes Kashmir, includes Iran. And part of the kind of foreign policy I want to shape is one in which we have tough, direct diplomacy combined with more effective military operations, focused on what is the number one threat against U.S. interests and U.S. lives. And that's al-Qaeda and, and, and their various affiliates, and we are going to go after them fiercely in the years to come."

The story of betrayal is not much different in the Middle East where the Obama administration first insisted on total freeze on Israeli settlements only to retreat after tremendous pressure from the powerful Israel lobby in Washington. In fact, Hillary Clinton not only gave in to the Israel lobby, but described as "unprecedented" Bibi Netanyahu's hollow assurance to "restrain" settlement growth. The immediate effect of this about-face in US policy has been the decision by President Mahmoud Abbas of Palestinian Authority to not seek re-election, a clear signal that the Mr. Abbas, considered a "reliable partner" for peace, feels betrayed by the Americans. This betrayal will only serve the strengthen the extremists on both sides of the Israel-Palestine divide.

Unfortunately, the domestic politics in Washington have trumped good, well-thought policies and plans by the well-meaning Obama team in both of the extremely dangerous regions of the world.

It is well known that the India caucus, consisting of pro-India members who receive campaign contributions from the Indian lobby, is one of the largest and most active in the US Congress. To ensure their loyalty, the Indian lobby is using both carrots and sticks. Following the Israel lobby's hardball methods, USINPAC helps raise funds for those who support pro-India policies, and threatens to unseat legislators such as Indiana Rep. Dan Burton who are sometimes critical of India. Since its inception, USINPAC has launched campaigns to neutralize Rep. Burton and others who do not do the bidding of the Indian lobby in US Congress. In 2005, USINPAC organized support in Congress to successfully prevent Rep. Burton from becoming the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee. In 2003, USINPAC organized a similar campaign to successfully prevent Rep. Burton from becoming the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Subcommittee that had jurisdiction over India.

Pakistani Ambassador Hussain Haqqani recently told a US publication that the Indo-U.S. relationship is robust and multifaceted. He mentioned that 26 members of the Obama administration are Indian-Americans. Some of them, such as Sonal Shah, have had known ties with the extremist Hindu Sangh Parivar. An Indian-American Rajiv Shah has been named by Obama as the head of US Agency for International Development (US AID). When confirmed, Mr. Shah will be deeply involved in handling aid to Pakistan under Kerry-Lugar bill.

Taha Gaya of Pakistan's nascent Washington lobby PAL-C explained to the BBC recently that on some issues the Indian and Pakistani lobbies had sometimes cooperated. But the Mumbai attacks last year changed all that.

"When Mumbai happened," Gaya told the BBC, "we saw a resurgence of participation from the older generation of Indian-Americans - those who had grown up in India" - who, he claimed, reverted to what he described as "the old more negative dynamic".

There is inevitable conflict between the two lobbies. The recent Kerry-Lugar aid bill for Pakistan is a good example of this conflict. Pro-India groups lobbied hard for all sorts of conditions to be included in the bill.

Sanjay Puri of USINPAC, the India Lobby, was part of this campaign. This was not about supporting India's interests, he claims, and neither was it motivated by hostility towards Pakistan.

It's clear that Indian-Americans have taken a page from the successful Jewish-American playbook. Not only are they active in the executive branch and on Capitol Hill, they are also being increasingly seen in the powerful financial services sector, high profile US media, major US universities, Washington think-tanks and other places which shape US public opinion and policies. And they are exercising rising influence on South Asia policy in the same way that the Jewish-Americans have on the US position in the Middle East conflict. The rising Indian influence in Washington and close multi-faceted collaboration between India and US are seen as a big threat by Pakistanis.

Indian lobby is collaborating with the American corporate interests and the pro-Israel Jewish-American lobby to gain power in the United States, and influence policies and legislation in Washington. On US policies toward Pakistan, the Indian lobby has already proved its power twice recently: the passage of US-India nukes deal and Kerry-Lugar aid strings. And the Indian lobby's strength is only growing.

Given the growing strength of both Indian and Israeli lobbies in Washington, the lack of progress on Palestine and Kashmir is going to significantly hurt all three nations in the India-Israel-US axis. The Americans will not be able to play the role of an honest broker in either region, unless the Israelis and Indians themselves recognize the consequences of their misguided and self-destructive policies in the Middle East and South Asia. At the same time, the growing Mid-East like US pre-occupation with the major unresolved and festering issues in two regions of the world is going to hurt America's interests abroad, with China seizing the initiative in a rapidly changing world.

Related Links:

Haqqani on US-India Ties

Holbrook "AfPak" Mission

India Lobby's Success in Holbrook Mandate

Obama Ignores Sonal Shah's VHP Ties

Obama on Kashmir

India Washington Lobby Emulates AIPAC

China's Checkbook Diplomacy

Pakistanis See US as Biggest Threat

US-India Nuclear Deal

India-Israel-US Axis


Riaz Haq said…
It seems a little too early for a challenge to USINPAC emerge among Indian-Americans, but it seems there is at least a nascent challenge to AIPAC coming from "J Street" on influencing US policy toward Israel.

Here's a NY Times report on it:

The tensions and sharp disagreements that have ripened among many American Jews over President Obama’s approach to Middle East issues were on public display here this week as a fledgling Jewish group held its first convention.

Mr. Obama sent his top national security aide to the convention of the group, known as J Street, but the Israeli ambassador pointedly stayed home. Some members of Congress agreed to be part of the event, only to withdraw their support in the face of criticism from their own political backers.

J Street has only a small fraction of the resources and membership of more established pro-Israel groups, like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and it remains unclear how potent it will be in presenting itself as an alternative. Nonetheless, it has had great success in quickly becoming a major reference point in the complicated debate over President Obama’s Middle East policy as well as the more emotional issue of the appropriate role for American Jews in supporting Israel.

While opinions in the Jewish community have never been uniform or monolithic, several analysts, elected officials and pollsters said the debate over Mr. Obama’s approach to Israel and its neighbors has sharpened boundaries between those who strongly support him and those who have grown more wary.

J Street has tried to position itself as a counterweight to groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or Aipac, which J Street supporters say require the United States to support the Israeli government too reflexively.

The main issue that set the polarization in motion, many say, was the administration’s public feud in the summer with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after an American demand that Israel immediately freeze any construction in the settlements.

Steve Grossman, a former president of Aipac and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said that the administration’s approach on the settlements issue had caused “an enormous sense of anxiety” among many American Jews.

“It seemed that too much was being laid on Israel without any commensurate demand on the other side,” he said, noting that it created “an emotional chasm.”

The issue of how much any American administration should press an Israeli government to make concessions for peace is at the heart of delicate and long-unresolved questions among American Jews. At the least, say the traditional supporters of Israel, any disagreements should not be aired publicly.

At the height of the American-Israeli disagreement in June, Aipac was able to get more than 300 members of Congress to sign a resolution that in effect urged that disagreements between Israel and the United States be dealt with privately.

J Street officials have said one of their principal beliefs is that any administration, Mr. Obama’s included, should have some room to disagree with Israel’s government in order to become a more effective broker in the region.

A senior administration official said that the president and his advisers were aware of the restiveness caused by the summer’s dispute with Mr. Netanyahu over settlements. But the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that Mr. Obama’s stance on settlements was not a drastic departure from longstanding policy and that relations with the Netanyahu government were now excellent.

Jim Gerstein, one of J Street’s founders, said his research and other polls found that most American Jews were uncomfortable with Israel’s settlement policy. But he said Orthodox Jews generally did support it.

In Israel itself, Mr. Obama’s favorable rating dropped in August to about 4 percent, according to a poll for The Jerusalem Post.
Riaz Haq said…
Here's a Dawn report on Obama receiving Pak Ambassador Sherry Rehman:

US President Barack Obama wants the United States and Pakistan to continue to work together for achieving their common goals of defeating terrorism and building a stable and peaceful Pakistan, says the White House.

A brief statement, issued by the White House on Thursday, said Mr Obama conveyed this message to Pakistan’s new Ambassador Sherry Rehman who presented her credentials to the US president on Wednesday.

The White House statement pointed out that usually it did not provide readouts of such formal meetings but it was making an exception because of the media’s interest in Ambassador Rehman’s meeting with the president.

‘The president welcomed Ambassador Rehman to Washington and expressed his desire that our two governments continue to work closely together towards our shared objectives of defeating Al Qaeda, combating violent extremism, and supporting a stable and peaceful Pakistan, Afghanistan and wider region,’ the statement said.

The brief statement covers almost all significant points of a relationship which has continued to strain since the May 2 US raid on Osama bin Laden`s compound in Abbottabad and received another major jolt on Nov 26 when Nato aircraft bombed Pakistani military posts and killed 24 soldiers.

After the attack, Pakistan ordered a parliamentary review of its relations with the United States, but Ambassador Rehman has dismissed suggestions that the review would have a negative impact on bilateral relations.

“The review will present an opportunity for both countries to reset ties on more consistent, transparent and predictable lines,” she said.
Riaz Haq said…
Ex #US Amb to UN John Bolton on $1.67B aid to #Pakistan: ‘Grit your teeth’ and pay - Washington Times:

“You also have to weigh … [that] if we didn’t support this government, the government could fall to Pakistani radicals,” he said.
The larger issue, Mr. Bolton said, is preventing terrorists from wresting control of the country’s 60 to 100 nuclear weapons that could deploy to the U.S. Turning the admittedly chaotic Pakistan-U.S. relations into something colder could prove a sizable security issue, he said. via @washtimes
Riaz Haq said…
#Israeli military chief compares #Israel to #Nazi Germany | Middle East | News | The Independent. #FreePalestine

Major General Yair Golan, the Israel Defence Forces' (IDF) Deputy Chief of Staff, was speaking at a Holocaust memorial service when he made the unexpected statement.

However, following strong criticism of his comments, he has since denied he was attempting to make a direct comparison between Israel, its armed forces and Nazi Germany.

"It's scary to see horrifying developments that took place in Europe begin to unfold here," Maj. Gen. Golan told an audience of politicians and dignitaries.

"Because if there is one thing that is scary in remembering the Holocaust, it is noticing horrific processes which developed in Europe – particularly in Germany – 70, 80, and 90 years ago, and finding remnants of that here among us in the year 2016."

"The Holocaust, in my view, must lead us to deep soul-searching about the nature of man. It must bring us to conduct some soul-searching as to the responsibility of leadership and the quality of our society. It must lead us to fundamentally rethink how we, here and now, behave towards the other."

"There is nothing easier and simpler than in changing the foreigner," the officer said, according to the Jerusalem Post and other reports. "There is nothing easier and simpler than fear-mongering and threatening. There is nothing easier and simpler than in behaving like beasts, becoming morally corrupt, and to act sanctimoniously."

"On Holocaust Remembrance Day, it is worthwhile to ponder our capacity to uproot the first signs of intolerance, violence, and self-destruction that arise on the path to moral degradation," Maj. Gen. Golan said.

In a further striking comment, he also appeared to criticise certain members of the IDF, while defending the organisation’s record for its ability to “investigate severe incidents without hesitation”.

While not directly referencing it, many believed the Major General was referring to the case of 18-year-old Sgt Elor Azaria. The soldier was charged with manslaughter after shooting dead an apparently wounded and unarmed Palestinian attacker. The consequent fallout has polarised Israel.
Riaz Haq said…
Nehru's pledges to Kashmiris on freedom:

“We have received urgent appeal for assistance from Kashmir Government. We would be disposed to give favorable consideration to such, request from any friendly State. Kashmir’s Northern frontiers, as you are aware, run in common with those of three countries, Afghanistan, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and China. Security of Kashmir, which must depend upon control of internal tranquility and existence of Stable Government, is vital to security of India especially since part of Southern boundary of Kashmir and India are common. Helping Kashmir, therefore, is an obligation of national interest to India. We are giving urgent consideration to question as to what assistance we can give to State to defend itself.


I should like to make it clear that question of aiding Kashmir in this emergency is not designed in any way to influence the State to accede to India. Our view which we have repeatedly made public is that the question of accession in any disputed territory or state must be decided in accordance with wishes of people and we adhere to this view, it is quite clear. I have thought it desirable to inform you of situation because of its threat of international complications.”
(Excerpts of telegram dated 26 October 1947 from Jawaharlal Nehru to the British Prime Minister, Clement Attlee)

“I should like to make it clear that the question of aiding Kashmir in this emergency is not designed in any way to influence the state to accede to India. Our view which we have repeatedly made public is that the question of accession in any disputed territory or state must be decided in accordance with wishes of people and we adhere to this view.”
(Telegram 402 Primin-2227 dated 27th October, 1947 to PM of Pakistan repeating telegram addressed to PM of UK)

“Kashmir’s accession to India was accepted by us at the request of the Maharaja’s government and the most numerously representative popular organization in the state which is predominantly Muslim. Even then it was accepted on condition that as soon as law and order had been restored, the people of Kashmir would decide the question of accession. It is open to them to accede to either Dominion then.”
(Telegram No. 255 dated 31 October, 1947, PM Nehru’s telegram to PM of Pakistan)

“…our assurance that we shall withdraw our troops from Kashmir as soon as peace and order is restored and leave the decision regarding the future of the State to the people of the State is not merely a promise to your Government but also to the people of Kashmir and to the world.”
(Jawahar Lal Nehru, Telegram No. 25, October 31, 1947, to Liaqat Ali Khan, PM of Pakistan)

“We have decided to accept this accession and to send troops by air, but we made a condition that the accession would have to be considered by the people of Kashmir later when peace and order were established. We were anxious not to finalize anything in a moment of crisis, and without the fullest opportunity to be given to the people of Kashmir to have their say. It was for them ultimately to decide.

And here let me make clear that it has been our policy all along that where there is a dispute about the accession of a state to either dominion, the decision must be made by the people of the state. It was in accordance with this policy that we added a proviso to the Instrument of Accession of Kashmir.
Riaz Haq said…
#US exports to #Pakistan sustain 10,000 jobs in #America …

South and Central Asia: Benefits of U.S.-Pakistan Economic Cooperation
Our economic partnership with Pakistan, a growing country of over 190 million, directly benefits America by creating well-paying U.S. jobs, promoting U.S. businesses and exports, and advancing scientific progress in critical areas. The following are some examples:

Creating U.S. Jobs:

The United States exported $1.8 billion in goods to Pakistan in 2015, creating or supporting over 9,200 U.S. jobs according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. As one example, in 2016, General Electric won a contract to provide 55 locomotives to Pakistan Railways, all of which will be manufactured in Erie, Pennsylvania.
Foreign direct investment from Pakistan to the United States in 2015 supported up to 1,000 additional U.S. jobs.
Promoting U.S. Businesses and Exports:

The United States and Pakistan launched the U.S.-Pakistan Clean Energy Partnership in 2015, which supports private investment in financially sound, clean energy projects in Pakistan. The Partnership aims to add at least 3,000 megawatts of clean power in Pakistan by 2020, creating opportunities for U.S. businesses across the clean energy spectrum.
In 2016, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) hosted a Pakistani group of Cochran and Borlaug Fellows to study the benefits of using U.S. wood products.
USDA connects U.S. and Pakistani scientists to jointly develop varieties of seeds that will resist diseases that threaten both U.S. and Pakistani cotton and wheat production.
Advancing Science and Technology Achievements:

Since 2005, grants co-financed by both countries under the U.S.-Pakistan Science and Technology Cooperation Agreement have funded 96 research projects in a variety of scientific areas.
Researchers from the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad and the University of California at Davis are developing a low-cost, blood-based Tuberculosis (TB) diagnostic test—more sensitive than the current World Health Organization-recommended sputum test—that is undergoing trials in Chennai, India to prepare for approval and commercial launch of the test in India. This test could eventually enable patients testing positive for TB to undergo effective treatment sooner for a highly damaging disease affecting populations across multiple TB-endemic countries.
Researchers at the University of Michigan at Dearborn and the University of Engineering and Technology (UET) in Lahore are collaborating to develop air quality monitoring that can be applied to mobile and wireless devices. This new area of research aims to improve air quality in polluted urban areas in both countries, and possibly soil and water quality in future applications.
23 U.S. universities from 16 states and the District of Columbia have received grants to work with counterpart Pakistani universities in fields ranging from business development to gender studies.

Riaz Haq said…
Ex-#Mossad Chief Says #Palestine Occupation Is #Israel's Only Existential Threat - Israel.

Former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo asserted on Tuesday that the Israeli occupation and the conflict with the Palestinians are the only existential threat facing Israel.

“Israel has chosen not to choose, hoping the conflict will resolve itself – perhaps the Arabs will disappear, maybe some cosmic miracle will happen,” Pardo told a conference at the Netanya Academic College. “One day we will become a binational state because it will be impossible to untie the Gordian knot between the two peoples. That is not the way to decide.”

Pardo stated: “Israel has one existential threat. It is a ticking time bomb. We chose to stick our head in the sand, creating a variety of external threats. An almost identical number of Jews and Muslims reside between the sea and the Jordan. The non-Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria live under occupation. This is Israel's definition, not mine. The law in this territory is as we have made it, a military justice system that is subject to the authority of the Israel Defense Forces.”
He said that despite the full withdrawal from Gaza, responsibility for the territory remains in Israel’s hands. “Israel is responsible for the humanitarian situation, and this is the place with the biggest problem in the world today,” he said.
read more:

Riaz Haq said…
Donors vs Voters

It's both comical and depressing at the same time. One commercial says Mitt Romney will raise taxes on the middle class by $4,000 followed immediately by an ad claiming President Barack Obama's plan will raise taxes on the same people by $5,000. The next ad tells us that Romney wants to throw Grandma out in the cold by dismantling Medicare. Two minutes later, an earnest voice informs us that Obama has "stolen" $700 billion from Medicare to pay for Obamacare and its government death panels.

After almost two years of nonstop recall elections, we in Wisconsin have grown so inured to political advertising that it amounts to little more than irritating background noise. But to someone from the 41 non-battleground states, the incessant politicking must be pretty astonishing.

Maybe people from California or Texas might feel as though they are being taken for granted when they see the amounts being spent in Wisconsin. Perhaps they're jealous at all the special attention being lavished on Wisconsin by the next president. But what does all that spending really amount to?

Yes, it is easy to tune out the ads and to roll your eyes when one comes on every 15 minutes, but there is something very disturbing going on beneath all this that isn't so amusing. Because today's politicians rely so heavily on television advertising and believe that they absolutely have to have it to win their elections, raising money has become their primary mission.

It's why Gov. Scott Walker spent so much time out of state at big-ticket fundraisers before his recall election, all the while claiming the recall effort was being driven by out-of-state interests. It didn't matter how hypocritical it looked; money was what he needed to win the recall election.

It's why Romney spent so little time campaigning even as his campaign was faltering after the Republican National Convention; he apparently believed fundraising was more important than campaign rallies in front of actual voters.

It's why Obama still attends as many Wall Street-sponsored fundraisers as he can, even as he simultaneously campaigns on the evils of the unregulated greed of the big banks. It's all money all the time.

What gets lost in this sea of campaign cash is the average voter's voice. If Romney thinks he absolutely has to win Wisconsin to get elected, he should be practically living here, telling us what he is going to do to make our lives better. Instead, he's in Texas, which he will carry by 15 points because that's where the big campaign donors live.

So the next time you hear an ad telling you that Obama has destroyed the country or that Romney's only purpose in life is to make the lives of the super-rich even cushier, remember what you aren't hearing is what the candidate is going to do for us here in Wisconsin.

Remember that the commercial cost a lot of money to produce and put on the air. Remember that the candidate got that money from someone who has his own agenda and it probably isn't the same as yours. Remember the candidate's loyalty that may have been bought by the donor.

Then remember how a democracy is supposed to work, and let's all try to figure out a way to get back to that.
Riaz Haq said…
#Hindu Diaspora: a strategic ally of #Modi & #BJP but a threat to “Idea of India” - #India #Hindutva #Islamophobia Global Village Space

By Ashok Swain, Prof of Peace and Conflict Resolution, Upsala University, Sweden

The rise of BJP is not only a severe threat to India’s accommodative and power-sharing politics but the peace and stability of the country as such. The Hindu chauvinist forces are exploiting religion to ferment communal oppression and violence in India, and these forces of injustice and bigotry are patronized by India’s large and powerful diaspora community.

This identity has not been limited to being cultural only but has also gradually become colored with the political ideology of Hindutva. ‘Hinduness’ or Hindutva can be described as a vision of India based on a “cultural nationalism” rooted in the Hindu majoritarian religious customs and traditions. The size and influence of the Hindu diaspora have leaped in the last two decades. As the Indian community in the West comes of age both in terms of numbers and financial capabilities, its political role has also evolved significantly.

The origin of the Hindu Diaspora stems from the British and French colonial masters exporting indentured labor to their other colonies such as Fiji, Trinidad, and Jamaica, to the French colonies of Guadeloupe and Martinique and the Dutch colony of Surinam. After the end of the 2nd World War and the country’s independence from colonial rule, Indians provided both labor and professional help with the reconstruction of war-torn Europe.

From the 1960s, Indians started migrating to non-European developed countries due to their demand for well-educated and professionally trained workforce. However, the most significant wave of Indian migration came in the very end years of last century, with the movement of software engineers and other professionals to western countries – especially the United States.


The contribution of the Hindu diaspora is not anymore limited to domestic economic growth; it is also playing a significant role in supporting Indian foreign policy. The Indian government is taking regular help of its diaspora to promote its interest in the foreign capitals, mainly to counter Pakistan and China’s diplomatic offensives. The Hindu diaspora, whose financial muscle has become quite impressive, strives hard to get its social and political agenda to India. Its involvement has grown beyond doing some philanthropic activities in and around their villages of origin.


The goal of rescuing their ‘Hindu’ nation from ‘minority-appeasing’ secular forces, the diaspora is no longer isolated from what is happening in India in the current era of increased global connectivity and communication. Through personal connections, travel and the use of information technology, the Hindu diaspora is actively engaged in India’s political processes.


In recent years, they lobbied hard to give an image makeover to Narendra Modi’s reputation after the Gujarat riot of 2002, in which 2000 Muslims were killed under his watch, and he was denied a visa to travel to the United States and the E.U. – almost till his election as Prime Minister. Modi after coming to power has continued to nurture his diaspora constituency. In each and every foreign visit, one pressing engagement is to hold meetings addressing the diaspora. He has initiated the process that Indians living abroad will be able to vote in Indian elections by proxy.

Riaz Haq said…
#israelelections2019: How Jewish Should #Israel Be? #Jewish men and women are drafted into #military, but ultra-Orthodox #Jews are exempt. Unlike other #Israelis, many ultra-#Orthodox receive state subsidies to study the Torah and raise large families

In a country buffeted by a festering conflict with the Palestinians, increasingly open warfare with Iran and a prime minister facing indictment on corruption charges, the election has been surprisingly preoccupied with the question of just how Jewish — and whose idea of Jewish — the Jewish state should be.

“I have nothing against the ultra-Orthodox, but they should get what they deserve according to their size,” said Lior Amiel, 49, a businessman who was out shopping in Ramat Hasharon. “Currently, I’m funding their lifestyle.”

This election was supposed to be a simple do-over, a quick retake to give Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a second chance to form a government and his opponents another shot at running him out of office.

Instead it has become what Yohanan Plesner, president of the nonpartisan Israel Democracy Institute, calls “a critical campaign for the trajectory of the country.”

Blame Avigdor Lieberman, the right-wing secular politician who forced the new election by refusing to join Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition with the ultra-Orthodox. The hill Mr. Lieberman chose to fight on was a new law that would eliminate the wholesale exemptions for ultra-Orthodox men to serve in the military.

Ultra-Orthodox lawmakers wanted to water it down. Mr. Lieberman refused to compromise.

It may have been a ploy to grab attention, but it struck a nerve. Almost overnight, Mr. Lieberman’s support doubled, and he became an unlikely hero to liberals.

For years, says Jason Pearlman, a veteran right-wing political operative, the two main axes of Israeli politics, religion and the Palestinians, had been “zip-tied” together. Mr. Netanyahu’s longtime coalition was just such a merger — right-wing voters, who favored a hard line toward the Palestinians, and the ultra-Orthodox, who promised a bloc vote in exchange for concessions on religious issues.

“What Lieberman did was to snap those zip-ties, popping the axes back apart,” Mr. Pearlman said.

Secular and liberal leaders from the left and center responded by effectively joining forces with the right-wing Mr. Lieberman against the prime minister’s ultra-Orthodox and religious-nationalist allies.


Most of them favor annexation of the West Bank, which would nearly extinguish the possibility of a two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict, and many support building a Third Temple on the site of the Dome of the Rock, an affront to a Muslim holy site that could set off a cataclysmic holy war.

More than 70 percent of the population wants the Sabbath “to be a more free day” and favors civil marriage and other changes that the ultra-Orthodox have blocked, said Gilad Malach, a scholar who studies the them.

Mr. Netanyahu has desperately tried to change the subject, repeatedly bringing security threats to the fore.

“For him, these issues are ticking bombs,” said Mr. Plesner, of the Israel Democracy Institute. “He’s on a collision course with his own voters. The majority of Likud voters are secular or traditional, and do not support the ultra-Orthodox demands.”

But opponents have learned never to write off Mr. Netanyahu, and he could still make the numbers work. The recent fiery attacks on the ultra-Orthodox offer just the threat to rally the base and potentially bring back into the fold voters who might otherwise stray to more modern parties.

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