JERUSALEM (Nov. 14)
Premier Yitzhak Shamir owes his mandate to form the next government to the Torah sages of the two largest ultra-Orthodox parties and to the Lubavitcher rebbe, 6,000 miles away in Brooklyn.
The Shas party’s Council of Torah Sages, Moetset Hahmei HaTorah in Bnei Brak, and the Agudat Yisrael’s corresponding panel, Moetset Gedolei HaTorah, instructed their parties’ Knesset factions Sunday night to advise President Chaim Herzog they favored a government headed by Shamir.
The president is required by law to assign the task of forming a government to the political leader most likely to accomplish it. Shas and the Agudah represent 11 Knesset seats between them.
Shamir has a good chance of winning the National Religious Party’s five seats, in which case Degel HaTorah, the newest Orthodox party, with two seats, is likely to climb aboard. It declined to make any recommendation to the president itself.
With the 18 religious votes, the seven represented by the secular parties of the right wing and the 40 Likud won in the Nov. 1 Knesset elections, Shamir will have a governing majority in the 120-member Knesset, if all goes well with the formal negotiations now about to begin.
The Shas and Agudah sages were subject to intense lobbying until the last moment. On Sunday afternoon, Shamir personally visited Ovadia Yosef, the former Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, who is Shas’s spiritual mentor. His aides maintained contacts with Agudah.
‘WAITED 18 YEARS FOR THIS’
The Knesset members-elect of the two religious parties were evenly divided over aligning with Likud or Labor.
Rabbi Yitzhak Peretz, the Shas faction leader, said Labor had actually “offered more.” But the Shas constituency persuaded the sages to go with Shamir, he hinted.
Once the “wise men” had spoken, all elements of the party rallied behind their decision.
Agudah sentiment also was split between Labor and Likud. But intense pressure for Likud emanated from the Lubavitch court in Brooklyn, presided over by the elderly Rabbi Menachem Schneerson.
Likud won Chabad backing apparently through the efforts of party hard-liner Ariel Sharon, who maintained close contacts with Lubavitch activists.
Sharon reportedly delivered a letter signed by Shamir, vowing that the controversial “Who Is a Jew” amendment to the Law of Return would be adopted by the Knesset within six weeks after the new government takes office.
“We have fought 18 years for this. We must seize the opportunity,” a Chabad rabbi here observed.
The measure would nullify conversions performed by non-Orthodox rabbis. In effect it would delegitimize the Conservative and Reform movements in Israel.
It is fiercely opposed by the Conservative and Reform movements abroad, which represent the vast majority of affiliated Jews in the United States and other Western countries of the Diaspora.
Another path to the same goal sought by the religious parties would be an amendment to the religious courts law. It would require that any convert from abroad obtain the endorsement of a rabbinical court here in order to marry.
CABINET POSTS PROMISED
Shamir is reported to have promised Shas passage of that amendment within 12 weeks of the new government taking office. It will be rendered moot, though, if the “Who Is a Jew” amendment is adopted.
In addition to these measures, Likud reportedly has offered Cabinet and sub-Cabinet posts to the ultra-Orthodox parties, thereby giving them enormous power to regulate the everyday lives of Israelis.
Peretz is said to have been promised a deputy premiership and the Interior Ministry, while the Ministry of Housing would go to Arieh Gamliel of Shas.
The Absorption and Welfare ministries would be put in control of Agudat Yisrael, which would run them through directors general. The Agudah sages eschew ministerial posts for their party members.
The National Religious Party, headed by hard-liner Avner Shaki, is slated to get the Education and Religious Affairs ministries.
Shas would get the deputy ministership of education and another deputy ministership not yet identified.
Agudah would be awarded two deputy ministerships, including finance and chairmanship of the Knesset’s Finance Committee.
But none of these postings is yet nailed down. There is still much discord among the various parties, and Shamir’s aides predict long and arduous negotiations ahead.
There also are pressures building within Likud. Sharon is demanding the Defense Ministry, which Shamir is reluctant to give him. Yitzhak Modai insists on the Finance Ministry, which he formerly headed. Shamir would prefer incumbent Moshe Nissim to retain it.
Meanwhile, Housing Minister David Levy, a powerful voice in Likud, has withdrawn himself from negotiations, charging Shamir with “double-dealing” that provoked mistrust.