Agudah Joins Likud Government in Exchange for Concessions

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir strengthened his political base Sunday with the addition of the Agudat Yisrael party to his Likud-led government.

But he may have paid a high political price by agreeing to the rigorously Orthodox party’s terms, which have angered the secular majority of Israelis.

The price includes influential sub-cabinet and parliamentary offices for its four Knesset members, and commitments to enact controversial religious legislation and oppose electoral reforms.

Nevertheless, all but one member of Shamir’s Cabinet voted to accept the coalition agreement Likud signed with Agudah on Friday.

The accord expanded the government’s bloc to 66 of the Knesset’s 120 members, instead of the delicate 62-58 majority that existed previously. Shamir can breathe easier now that the ability of smaller parties on the left or right to bring the government down has been considerably reduced.

But his peace of mind may have been bought at the cost of a new round in the religious debates that have troubled Israeli society from its earliest days.

The Cabinet, at its weekly session Sunday, endorsed two bills which it promised to bring before the Knesset for “rapid legislation.”

WOMEN IN TIGHT JEANS

One bill calls for stricter enforcement of the ban on all public transportation on Saturdays. Another forbids what the pious regard as “indecent” advertisements on billboards. By their standards, this means women in tight jeans.

In addition, the Cabinet agreed to review at a later date bills banning the production and sale of pork in Israel and tightening the already severely restrictive abortion laws.

The religious legislation immediately came under fire from the left-wing parties and the Center-Shinui Movement.

Of possibly greater impact, however, was Likud’s promise to Agudah not to support electoral reform measures without first consulting it.

Reforms have been proposed in recent years, mainly out of disgust with the crass deal-making that characterizes coalition-building under the present system.

Changes such as the direct election of the prime minister, replacement of proportional representation in the Knesset, at least partially by a constituency system, and raising the threshold for entry into the Knesset above the present 1 percent of the popular vote have gained ground rapidly with the public and in many political circles.

Agriculture Minister Rafael Eitan of the two-man right-wing Tsomet party was the only Cabinet member who refused to endorse the agreements with Agudah.

“These are political laws, not religious laws,” Eitan charged with respect to the promised legislation.

Knesset member Shulamit Aloni of the leftist Citizens Rights Movement warned Shamir he would face a civil rebellion if he tried to enforce the promises made to Agudah, Israel radio reported.

The Center-Shinui Movement denounced what it called “the shameful surrender” of the Likud to Agudah.

Labor Knesset member Emmanuel Zisman said the agreement violated the status quo between the rights of secular and religious Israelis.

But Likud rejected the criticism as “hypocrisy.” The Likud Knesset faction recalled that when Labor Party Chairman Shimon Peres tried to form a coalition last spring he made the identical promises to Agudah.

The religious party in fact had agreed in principle to join a Labor-led government had Peres managed to form one at the time.

In the short run, Agudah’s most important gains may be from the powerful positions given to the members of its Knesset faction.

Rabbi Menahem Porush was appointed deputy minister of labor and welfare.

Rabbi Shmuel Halpert was named a deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office and put in charge of the powerful National Insurance Institute.

Rabbi Avraham Verdiger was appointed deputy minister in charge of Jerusalem and Rabbi Moshe Feldman was made chairman of the Knesset’s Finance Committee.

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