Minister’s Remarks Precipitate a Crisis in Israeli Government
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Minister’s Remarks Precipitate a Crisis in Israeli Government

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Israel’s Labor-led government appears to have survived a coalition crisis triggered by remarks made by Education Minister Shulamit Aloni that outraged the fervently Orthodox Shas party.

At a reportedly “stern” meeting Sunday with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the leader of the left-wing Meretz bloc and her two party Cabinet colleagues pledged to speak and act with greater discretion in future, in the interest of preserving a coalition government committed to pursing peace with the Arabs.

But the crisis highlighted the essential fragility of the Labor-led government. And the opposition parties, despite their own internal conflicts, planned to maximize the government’s embarrassment before allowing the “Aloni affair: to fade.

Another rigorously Orthodox party, the opposition United Torah Judaism bloc, which is composed of the Ashkenazic Agudat Yisrael and Degel HaTorah parties, plans to introduce a no-confidence motion in the Knesset.

The Likud and the National Religious Party are certain to support it or introduce similar motions of their own.

But they and two other right-wing opposition parties, Moledet and Tsomet, control only 53 votes in the 120-seat Knesset, compared to the 56 controlled by Labor and Meretz. The five Knesset members from Arab parties would likely support the government in a noconfidence vote, meaning it would survive such a challenge, even if Shas’ six members voted the other way.

Nevertheless, the Labor government would not want to remain in a position where it had to rely on the votes of the Arab parties to remain in power.

The uproar surrounding the education minister built up over a period of weeks, growing more raucous and intense each time the minister made a deliberately controversial statement on issues of Jewish doctrine or observance.

Matters reached a head last week when Aloni, within the space of three days, declared that:

* Israel’s non-Orthodox schoolchildren were being “force-fed” the biblical account of creation;

* The text of the Yizkor prayer for the dead should be changed to omit references to God; and

* Prime Minister Rabin would cede the entire Golan Heights to Syria in exchange for full peace.

The first two utterances prompted a call to Rabin from the

spiritual leader of the

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Shas party, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who told the premier that Shas would have to pull out of the coalition.

And the statement on the Golan reportedly left Rabin himself “red-faced with rage.” His office announced Friday that Rabin would meet the three Meretz ministers Sunday to discuss Aloni’s “continued functioning in the government.11

This formulation naturally brought about a drawing of the Meretz wagons around the beleaguered education minister. Meretz declared in an official statement Saturday night that “any diminution of Minister Aloni’s status will mean the break-up of the coalition.’1

But Aloni’s two Meretz colleagues, Energy Minister Amnon Rubinstein and Immigrant Absorption Minister Yair Tsaban, let it be known privately that they, along with the rest of the party, were deeply embarrassed over Aloni’s statements.

Knesset member Haim Oron of Meretz’s Mapam faction gave public voice to the widespread discontent within the party: “”Some of what she said I don’t agree with,1′ he said. “”Some I would never have said myself. And some I would not have said at this time.”

At the meeting with Rabin on Sunday, Aloni herself termed the statement about the premier’s position on the Golan “”a mistaken utterance.”

Regarding the statements on religion, all three ministers and the chairman of the Meretz Knesset faction, Yossi Sarid, made it clear to the prime minister that there would not be a recurrence.

While insisting that Aloni not be depicted as “”under threat, they pledged to show sensitivity toward the integrity of the coalition, which, as Sarid put it, is “”the one we want to preserve.”

Rabin, for his part, stopped short of issuing a formal warning to Aloni. He merely said, in his blunt style, that if the present situation continued, the coalition would be hard to keep intact.

The prime minister later phoned Interior Minister Arye Deri, the Shas political leader, and arranged to meet after Rosh Hashanah with Rabbi Yosef and the three other members of the Shas Council of Torah Sages.

Deri said the final word would rest with Yosef. He said the issue was “not one of coalition politics, but of the entire atmosphere in the country” regarding the “Jewish values of the state.”

Aloni herself had made the key first move in mollifying Yosef. In a letter made public last Thursday, she both apologized for the furor she had caused and asked the Shas leader to help calm it down. The education minister blamed much of the trouble on unfair reporting and on deliberate attempts by the opposition National Religious Party to stir up trouble between herself and Shas.

“I am sorry about the out-of-context reports which have led to misunderstandings and much embarrassment,” the minister wrote to the rabbi.

“The press failed to report that I have given instructions that education programs be prepared for the state (secular) schools on the synagogue and its role in Jewish life,” she said, enumerating several of her calls for religious instruction.

“I want to emphasize that all Israeli (Jewish) children, secular and religious alike, are Jews, and without a knowledge of Jewish heritage through the ages, we will remain an empty vessel,” she wrote. “Therefore I favor expanding studies of Judaism and Jewish heritage.”

Aloni at the same time made a plea for flexibility when she referred to the rabbinic aphorism that there are “”7O faces of the Torah,” that is, many ways of interpreting it.

“I hope Your Honor will calm down the storm, and I, for my part, hereby charge myself to stay away from the media, and most especially from all those, inspired by the NRP, who seek to provoke conflict and seek to trip me up in my ministry wherever I turn.11

For much of the past 15 years, the Education Ministry had been in the hands of the NRP, and many of its top officials are identified with that party. Aloni’s aides claim that leaks from private meetings at the ministry make their way into the press, often in tendentious form, as a way of undermining the new minister.

Aloni is due to spend the coming two weeks abroad, and her absence is expected to help bring calm to the coalition atmosphere. But political analysts say Rabin’s chances of wooing United Torah Judaism into his government have been dealt a possibly mortal blow by the Aloni affair.

The party’s rabbis decreed that the Torah reading on the Sabbath be briefly postponed in synagogues across the country as a mark of protest at the statements made by Aloni and her continued holding of the education portfolio.

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