Israel’s Labor government survived its first major parliamentary challenge Monday when a series of no-confidence motions over controversial statements on religious issues made by Education Minister Shulamit Aloni were voted down 59- 51.
An advance deal to safeguard the coalition made the actual vote something of an anti-climax and shifted the legislature’s attention to a moment of drama staged by an opposition politician in the presence of television cameras.
Veteran Knesset member Menachem Porush of the haredi, or fervently Orthodox, United Torah Judaism bloc demonstratively tore his shirt as a symbol of Jewish mourning over Aloni’s alleged blasphemies.
Aloni, in public statements several weeks ago, disparaged the literal version of biblical Creation and proposed that the name of God be omitted from a memorial prayer. Porush said that Jewish law requires observant Jews to perform the “kriah” (tearing) ritual over such heresy.
But he was nonplussed when, during the Knesset debase, a Labor Party negotiator disclosed that Porush had repeatedly met with Aloni in secret and veritably “begged” her to retain responsibility for the haredi education system and not delegate it to her deputy, Rabbi Moshe Maiya of the rival haredi party Shas.
“Which Menachem Porush are we to believe?” asked Health Minister Haim Ramon, “the one who tore kriah here over Aloni’s blasphemies or the one who begged her to keep haredi schools under her wing?”.
Ramon accused United Torah Judaism and the National Religious Party, both of which are in the opposition, unlike Shas, of “speaking in the name of God but not meaning it.”
“Some of you are dying to enter this government that you criticize so severely. Others are simply determined to tear it down,” he said.
Observers attuned to political nuance heard this as an indication that both Porush and government leaders are keeping that door open for United Torah Judaism to join the coalition in the future.
Further hints of this came in remarks by Porush before his dramatic presentation, in which he praised the policy goals set forward by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin for the government.
In turn, Police Minister Moshe Shahal of Labor, speaking for the government, lauded Porush as a skilled and dignified parliamentarian who spoke with “pathos and feeling.”
Shahal compared the speech of the United Torah Judaism leader favorably with those of two other opposition speakers: Ariel Sharon of Likud and Gonen Segev of Tsomet, who had argued on behalf of no-confidence motions related to security and diplomatic issues.
By pre-arrangement, Shas’ six Knesset members stayed away from the Knesset for the no-confidence vote on Aloni’s remarks. Their absence was in line with the terms of an agreement Labor had worked out earlier in the day with its two coalition partners, Shas and Aloni’s Meretz bloc.
As part of the same agreement, Rabin convened a brief Cabinet meeting before the Knesset debate to warn the feuding ministers against further “upsets” in relation between them.
Statements made at the Cabinet session by the prime minister and by Aloni were read aloud from the Knesset podium by Ramon, who has played a mediating role in the coalition crisis.
In her statement, Aloni expressed “great regret” if her comments had offended the Orthodox community. She reiterated her own and her party’s desire for the continuation in office of the present government and pledged to work together with its other components in “mutual respect, mutual consideration, mutual listening and good will.”
Rabin, in his statement, said that although he deplored Aloni’s remarks, he had turned down Shas’s request to remove her from the education post after she expressed her regret and provided assurances about the future.
He vowed he would use his “legal powers” if “upsets” such as those that had “plagued the Likud government” before him occurred in future.
The accord involving the left-wing Meretz and the haredi Shas was finalized at noon by the Shas Council of Torah Sages. In a unanimous decision, it instructed the Shas faction to abstain in the no-confidence vote, in light of the understandings reached with the prime minister.
Among these understandings is a role for Deputy Education Minister Maiya in directing Jewish heritage curricula in non-Orthodox state schools; arrangements for periodic lectures by rabbis in such schools; and, in a non- educational issue, tighten kashrut regulations for imported meat.
Observers in the Knesset were divided over the long-term significance of the day’s events. Some agreed with Ramon, who said the government had emerged from the crisis “strengthened.” Others predicted further discord ahead between the haredi Shas and the secular Meretz.