Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid, for all his faults, has just done something very refreshing: he’s kept his promise. Addressing the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organizations in Jerusalem last month, Lapid pledged, “I am going to do everything in my power to make sure there will be civil marriages in Israel. The complete dominance of the Orthodox rabbis in Israel over divorces and marriages is an insult.” Today, Maariv reported that Lapid was sticking to his guns, demanding as part of coalition negotiations with Likud-Beytenu that the state give those who can't or won't wed under Jewish law the option of civil marriage.
That change would mark a huge shift in Israeli society, not to mention a landslide victory for Israel’s Jewish secular population, 83 percent of which supports civil marriage, according to a recent Smith Research Institute poll commissioned by Hiddush. Hiddush president Rabbi Uri Regev said that “these findings unequivocally demonstrate that the general public is eager to see civil marriage introduced in Israel, as well as recognition of marriage in the non-Orthodox denominations.” He added that “the elections created a historic opportunity to establish civil marriage in Israel as was repeatedly promised by Yesh Atid chair, Yair Lapid.”
It’s worth noting that Lapid’s determination to make good on this promise will likely be eased along, not only by the fact that he has the backing of the majority of Israeli Jews, but by a recent, precedent-setting legal ruling catalyzed by Israel’s gay community. Back in December, when a family court dissolved the marriage of Uzi Even and Amit Kama, it granted Israel's first gay divorce and, effectively, its first civil divorce, too. Experts say that ruling could now act as a precedent for granting civil divorce beyond just the gay community, a shift that could—if Lapid throws his weight behind it—have broad implications for the cause of civil marriage as well.
But Lapid’s not just out to change the way marriage and divorce work in Israel; he wants to change the relationship between religion and state writ large. The other demands he’s voiced in coalition negotiations include easing the conversion process, which is currently defined and controlled exclusively by the ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate, and increasing public transportation on weekends, which currently does not operate between Friday afternoon and Saturday night in most parts of the country.
Though Likud-Beytenu hasn’t yet agreed to any of these changes, it seems likely not to fight Lapid very hard on them. Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beytenu has itself campaigned for some of these causes in the past. Netanyahu’s Likud has no reason to object on religious grounds, and—given that it’s already signaled to Shas and United Torah Judaism that they won’t make it into the coalition—no reason to object on tactical grounds, either. If anyone might be expected to object, it would be Naftali Bennett’s national-religious Habayit Hayehudi party—yet Bennett, who’s been presenting a strong united front with Lapid for weeks now, has shown zero interest in doing so. That’s because his top priority is safeguarding Jewish settlements, not Orthodox hegemony. It’s a preference that gives Lapid the political cover he needs to make real headway on the separation of religion and state—in other words, to keep his promise to the Israeli electorate.
But partnering with Bennett is a double-edged sword: While it may allow Lapid to keep one promise, it will also prevent him from keeping another. After all, his speech to the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organizations, which contained the pledge to fight for civil marriage, also contained a promise to revive the peace process and negotiate with the Palestinian Authority for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank. Bennett, who wants to annex 60 percent of the West Bank, is diametrically opposed to that goal.
So, although Lapid appears to be keeping one of his political promises, he certainly won’t be keeping them all. It’s precisely because Bennett knows this that he agreed to partner with Lapid in the first place.