Deri Resigns Post, Throwing Coalition into Disarray As Vote on Peace Nears

The Rabin government was thrown into disarray this week when Shas party leader and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri submitted his resignation Wednesday.

The move could topple the government or at least jeopardize Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s chances of obtaining Knesset approval of a proposed peace accord with the Palestinians.

Deri’s resignation followed a ruling by the High Court of Justice that he and Deputy Religious Affairs Minister Raphael Pinhasi, also of Shas, should be suspended from their posts.

Under Israeli law, the resignation cannot take effect until next week.

Both Deri and Pinhasi face charges, in separate cases, of corruption and misuse of funds. Rabin had been under pressure to remove them from office by Attorney General Yosef Harish and by a citizens group that had brought a petition to the High Court.

The fervently Orthodox Sephardic Shas party scheduled a meeting Thursday to decide whether to remain in the coalition following Wednesday’s events and whether its six Knesset members should support the Palestinian autonomy agreement.

Party officials have threatened to secede from the coalition in the event that Deri or Pinhasi were forced from office.

If Shas quits, the coalition would be left with a governing plurality of 56 Knesset members — out of a total of 120 — from the Labor Party and Meretz bloc.

Such vulnerability could not have come at a worse time, and Rabin admitted as much at a news conference Wednesday.

‘NO DOUBT THIS COULD HARM’ CHANCE FOR PEACE

“Minister Deri, whom I asked to meet me today, came and submitted his resignation,” said Rabin. “There is no doubt this could harm the chance for peace.”

Unless Labor can persuade additional parties to join the government, it will be forced to rely on the support of the five Knesset members belonging to the two Arab parties, Hadash and the Arab Democratic Party, in the crucial vote on the agreement for Palestinian self-rule. Such a vote was scheduled for Thursday.

The agreement, which was approved last week by Israel’s Cabinet, calls for Palestinian self-rule in the Gaza Strip and Jericho as a preliminary step toward extending Arab authority throughout the territories.

Until now, no Israeli government has relied on the Arab parties to stay in power. This situation would be particularly awkward at a time when Rabin seeks a broad mandate to make a controversial peace with the Palestinians.

The government’s mandate and legitimacy are already under severe attack by opponents of the peace accord.

Observers expected this week that Shas would not leave the government because it has too much to lose — namely power, prestige and access to government funding.

But, according to Israel Radio, Shas Knesset Member Aryeh Gamliel said the court ruling reinforces his belief that Shas should withdraw from the coalition.

The final decision rests with the party’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and the party’s Council of Torah Sages.

Despite pressure from his own advisers, Rabin had refused until now to dismiss Deri and Pinhasi. He argued that he had no legal obligation to fire them, saying he was bound to honor an agreement he made with Deri not to dismiss him before an indictment was served in court.

But it also has been apparent that Rabin has feared that the recent dramatic breakthroughs in the peace negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization could be jeopardized by the Shas officials’ departures.

The government has in the meantime been courting support for the peace plan among Knesset members of Agudat Yisrael in the event Shas withdraws its support.

Agudah’s Council of Torah Sages was meeting Wednesday to decide what stance to adopt and even whether to join the coalition government.

Agudah’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Eliezer Schach, has been adamantly opposed to joining the present governing coalition because it includes the fervently secular Meretz party.

The current crisis, though, could justify a radical reshuffling of the Cabinet, which would enable Schach to give his support.

Alternatively, three of the four Agudah Knesset members give Schach only nominal loyalty, and could conceivably enter the government on their own.

With even three Agudah members on board, the government’s Jewish representatives would outnumber the opposition by 59 to 56.

Environment Minister Yossi Sarid, a member of the Meretz bloc, said he believes it would be a serious mistake for Shas to pull out of the coalition at the moment the government’s peace efforts are about to yield fruit.

And Uri Dromi, head of the Government Press Office, told Israel Radio, “I can only hope that at this crucial moment when we are facing such a great decision, the top priority on the agenda today, which is peace, will prevail.”

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