Faced by angry complaints from Israel’s religious parties, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin may try to shift Shulamit Aloni from the Education Ministry to a less controversial Cabinet slot.
The Labor – affiliated newspaper Davar reported Tuesday that Rabin was considering the change in an attempt to save off further tensions with one of his two coalition partners, the Sephardic Orthodox Shas party, and with possible Orthodox Cabinet allies in the future.
Aloni, whose recent remarks on religion from a secularist perspective stirred the ire of Shas, heads the left-wing Meretz bloc.
Rabin, meanwhile, is holding meetings with opposition parties in an attempt to broaden the base of his government. If Shas quits the Cabinet, he would still enjoy a 61-vote parliamentary majority, but only with the tacit support of the five Knesset members representing Arab parties.
Rabin has repeatedly made it clear he wants to lead the peace process on the basis of a solid Jewish majority, an aim that makes the position of Shas a pivotal one in the present coalition.
The prime minister met Tuesday with the leader of the right-wing Tsomet party, which he originally wanted to include in his government. But Rafael Eitan said later that they did not discuss prospects for joining the coalition.
“The issue did not come up,” he said, adding cryptically: “We did not go into any details.” A similarly vague formulation came following a meeting Wednesday between Rabin and leaders of the United Torah Judaism bloc, an Ashkenazic Orthodox party that is considered another possible coalition partner.
“We talked about ideological matters,” said Knesset member Avraham Ravitz. “On these we found little disagreement.”
That was taken as a backhanded reference to the prime minister’s known displeasure over the controversial actions of his education minister.
Rabin told Meretz leaders last Friday that he foresaw crisis and instability in the coalition in the weeks ahead. He said he was uncertain how Shas would vote in a series of looming motions of non-confidence introduced by opposition parties on state – and – religion issues.
The prime minister met privately last week with the spiritual leader of Shas, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, at the rabbi’s Jerusalem home.
This is by no means the first time the two have conferred since Rabin took office. Observers are increasingly coming to recognize the key role of the Sephardi sage in sustaining the present coalition and shoring up popular support for its policies.
But the meeting apparently was less than reassuring for Rabin. It came in the wake of an accusation by the National Religious Party that Aloni, during a recent trip to Germany, held official meetings on the Sabbath and ate in non- kosher restaurants.
That complaint came hard on the heels of an episode last month in which Aloni clashed with Shas and other religious parties over statements on creation versus evolution and over the text of a memorial prayer for the dead.
After that incident, Aloni wrote a letter of apology to Yosef and was called on the carpet by Rabin, who ordered her to desist from further controversial statements.
Aloni is still abroad, and Rabin’s meeting with the Meretz leadership last Friday was held in her absence.
The Meretz leaders – Absorption Minister Yair Tsaban, Energy Minister Amnon Rubinstein and Yossi Sarid, the Knesset faction chairman – were reportedly low- key in their reaction to the accusation made by the NRP against their party leader.
But several of the leading newspaper commentators have come down heavily on Rabin for summoning the Meretz leaders to discuss the NRP charges in the first place.
Top Ha’aretz columnists Yoel Markus and Uzi Benziman both faulted Rabin for bending over backward to placate ultra-Orthodox sensitivities beyond the limits established in political “status quo” arrangements with the religious sector.
Markus wrote Tuesday that Rabin may find himself in hot water when an interview he gave soon appears in Penthouse. He predicted the premier will be hard put to explain to the haredi rabbis the juxtaposition of himself, “albeit fully clothed,” and some of the more lascivious photography in the American magazine.
Political observers say the NRP is seeking to deliberately embarrass Shas, which is under heavy pressure from its rank and file to quit the coalition unless Aloni is removed from her post.
Some of the media commentary links the leak of Aloni’s itinerary in Germany to her director-general at the Education Ministry. Zevulun Or-Lev is a close friend of the former education minister, Zevulun Hammer of the NRP.
The meetings of the prime minister with Tsomet and United Torah were formally billed as briefing sessions, similar to those he is conducting with both coalition and opposition parties on economic policy and on the progress of the Middle East peace talks.
But political analysts are unanimous in assessing that the premier is in effect making an effort, before the opening of the new Knesset session in less than two weeks, to defuse the Aloni time bomb.
His success in doing so would greatly contribute to the prospects of United Torah joining up. But it is hard to see Meretz swallowing this slight unless Rabin finds a way of generously compensating the party, by the allocation of a fourth Cabinet post, for example.
As Davar put it Tuesday, “This is the second round of Rabin’s coalition negotiations.”