By Ross Dunn, June 17, 2000
Ehud Barak, Israel’s tough-talking Prime Minister and former
military strongman, has conceded defeat to the political rabbis in
his coalition who have threatened to topple the Government.
Mr Barak, who only a week ago pledged to fire ministers for
disloyalty, is now offering to meet their demands for more power and
a greater share of the Budget.
Although he is widely celebrated for his daring military career,
the Prime Minister is bowing in the political battlefield against
the might of the Jewish ultra-orthodox Shas party.
Shas, the second-largest member of the coalition, has threatened
to withdraw from the Government and force early elections.
Mr Barak made the offer to appease the rebellious faction following advice
that the Government would not survive for long without Shas.
Nor would he be able to win the Knesset’s approval for a final
peace accord with the Palestinians if he does not have the support
of the party’s 17 members.
But despite a humiliating backdown, the future of the peace talks
seems far from assured even if Shas agrees to remain in the Government.
The party is now also holding out for the Right to directly
participate in the negotiations with the Palestinians.
And if this demand is also not met, then the Shas ministers say they
will formally hand in their resignations at tomorrow’s Cabinet meeting.
In a desperate effort to keep Shas in the Government, Mr Barak
has proposed giving a ministry, other than the Education Department,
direct authorisation to pour millions of dollars into the party’s
scandal-ridden and bankrupt education system.
Under the plan, the Shas religious schools would no longer come
under the authority of the left-wing Education Minister, Mr Yossi
Sarid, who had been refusing to bow to the party’s demands.
This would mean treating secular and religious students by
different criteria, a move that could promote further hatred in an
already deeply divided society.
Mr Barak has also offered to legalise Shas’ network of pirate
radio stations, a powerful outlet for its propaganda machine.
But having sensed that the Prime Minister is about to fold, in
what has become a potentially fatal political poker game, Shas has
also decided to raise the stakes by proclaiming militant views on
the peace process.
For the first time Shas is demanding full participation in the
diplomatic action with the Palestinians, and even Syria and Lebanon,
if negotiations are ever revived with these countries.
This is a demand that Mr Barak, who wants to control the peace
process, may not be able to meet.
In the past Shas had accepted handing over territory in exchange
for peace, as long as the prime minister of the day met its other
demands, particularly for more funding.
But no longer – and this could have serious implications for the
future of the Middle East peace talks.
Shas, essentially a group of political rabbis, takes its orders
from a council of aged Jewish sages, led by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who
are not in parliament.
This means that the peace process could ultimately be determined
by a group of non-elected Jewish religious leaders, who are in no
way answerable to the nation’s voters.
And for the moment at least, all Mr Barak can expect to receive
in return from Shas is a commitment to cancel its support for the
bill it supported last week calling for early elections.
“All in all, this is political commerce of the worst kind,
carried out in surrender to bullying, that will seriously harm the
relatively clean image of the Prime Minister,”
wrote the political commentator Shalom Yerushalmi in the Hebrew daily
Although Mr Barak may be saved for the moment from being forced
into a narrow government, “neither will his new patchwork government
be especially stable”.
Yerushalmi suggested the left-wing Meretz Party might quit in protest.
Another commentator, Sima Kadoma, writing in the Yedioth
Ahronoth newspaper, said the leader of Shas, Eli Yishai, was now
the real power in the Government.
“Eli Yishai can sit in the Prime Minister’s bureau, take off his
shoes, and put up his feet up on the table, right under the nose of
the Prime Minister,” he wrote.
“Eli Yishai is now the boss, the Prime Minister is sweating.”
Mr Barak might have preferred to form a national unity government
with the Likud party led by Mr Ariel Sharon.
But Mr Sharon has said he will not join the Government and is
instead encouraging Shas to enter the Opposition ranks.
He has even promised to raise money privately for the Shas
schools, in a bid to entice the party to withdraw from the
But this offer from Mr Sharon drew strong fire from his Likud
A Likud MP, Mr Michael Eitan, declared the faction had become
“the theatre of the absurd” in its quest to woo Shas.
“The Likud cannot function because of monetary distress. The
Likud is drowning in tremendous debts,” he said. “And here the head
of Likud promises to raise money for a sectarian party, whose
function it is to take votes away from the Likud.”
But his was a voice in the wilderness, hardly heard above the din
of a political auction in which the major parties are shamelessly
outbidding one another in an attempt to “buy” the favours of Shas.
And Shas, with a strong appreciation of its true value in the
political market, appears intent on endlessly raising the price.