Outspoken Meretz Bloc Politician Becomes Minister in Rabin Cabinet
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Outspoken Meretz Bloc Politician Becomes Minister in Rabin Cabinet

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Yossi Sarid, long the enfant terrible of Israeli politics, was appointed minister of the environment by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on Sunday, becoming the fourth member of the dovish Meretz bloc to serve in the Cabinet.

The environment post until now has been held by Ora Namir of the Labor Party, who was moved to the much larger and more senior Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare, which until now had been held by the prime minister himself.

In other Cabinet shifts, Economic Planning Minister Shimon Shetreet of Labor was given an additional portfolio as minister of science. The Science Ministry had been held until now by Meretz’s Amnon Rubinstein, along with the Ministry of Communications, which he will continue to hold.

The appointments signify Rabin’s realization that the chances of drawing additional parties into the coalition are slim for the time being. The premier had been holding the Labor and Social Welfare portfolio vacant in the hope that the United Torah Judaism party would join the government.

Sarid indignantly denied hinted suggestions in the media and in the political community that his support for the Cabinet’s decision earlier this month to deport 415 Moslem fundamentalists to Lebanon was in some way connected to his ministerial appointment.

As chairman of Meretz’s Knesset faction, Sarid has shared with the party’s three ministers responsibility for supporting the move, which has been sharply criticized by two of the party’s three main factions: the Citizens Rights Movement and Mapam.

Sarid has long been considered a thorn in the side of Rabin. He repeatedly attacked Rabin personally for his performance as defense minister in the national unity government of 1984-1990, especially with regard to his efforts to stamp out the intifada.

But in recent weeks, the customarily outspoken Knesset member has adopted a more “establishment” and “statesmanlike” public posture, discharging his duty as Meretz faction chairman in a manner that has earned him unusual praise from Rabin.

Discussions were also under way concerning the Ministry of Religious Affairs, with Rabin now expected to appoint a Shas deputy minister to run this sensitive and always-controversial ministry.

A number of Labor figures, including the present caretaker minister of religious affairs, Uzi Baram, are conducting a rear-guard fight against handing the ministry to Shas, on the grounds that the fervently Orthodox Sephardic party is too narrowly focused and has too many interests at stake to do justice to the need to provide religious services to the entire populace.

Aiding the anti-Shas campaign is the National Religious Party, which is traditionally the steward of the Religious Affairs Ministry but now finds itself outside the government for the first time in Israel’s history.

NRP’s secretary-general, Shaul Yahalom, appealed to Labor on Sunday to keep direct control over the ministry rather than award it to the non-Zionist Shas party.

The issue is especially sensitive at this time, because 10-year elections for the chief rabbis of Israel are due to be held in February. The Religious Affairs Ministry plays a key role in organizing these elections and an indirect role in influencing their outcome.

“Shas supports rabbis who have not served in the army and whose sons do not serve in the army,” Yahalom charged, resurrecting an issue that hits a raw nerve among many Israelis. While students in the fervently Orthodox yeshivas run by Shas and other parties are exempt from military service, those in Modern Orthodox yeshivas supported by the NRP often choose to fulfill the draft obligations that apply to all other Israelis.

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