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News Analysis: Deal with Shas Stalls Amid Renewed Debate over Religious Role in Israel

Efforts to strengthen the Labor government coalition were frustrated once again this week when a deal with the fervently Orthodox Sephardic Shas Party stalled because of critics’ charges it would undermine Israel’s democracy and foster religious coercion.

Labor leaders had hoped Shas members would rejoin the coalition late this week following a memo of understanding between party leaders in which Labor guaranteed there would be no change in the status quo on religious affairs.

The Labor agreement was made despite recent Supreme Court rulings that non-Orthodox movements in Israel touted as victories over the Orthodox establishment.

In one recent decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Israel must recognize civil marriages, including intermarriages, performed in foreign consulates.

But members of the left-wing Meretz Party, which is part of the coalition, rejected the deal, calling it a serious violation of Israel’s democratic standards. Communication Minister Shulamit Aloni of Meretz said the deal would mean suicide for her party.

Nevertheless, Meretz vowed to continue negotiating with Shas in the coming days to find more acceptable terms on which the religious party would return to the coalition.

Meanwhile, there was also opposition to the deal within Labor’s ranks. Justice Minister David Libai said the understanding with Shas demonstrated contempt for the Supreme Court and posed the threat of religious coercion.

Labor now enjoys a solid majority of 61 members in the 120-member Knesset. But five of these seats represent Arab parties and do not belong officially to the coalition, leaving Labor to preside over what is technically a minority government.

LABOR IS VULNERABLE

While the coalition is in no immediate danger, the Knesset totals make Labor vulnerable, particularly in light of the politically explosive concessions that will be demanded by the advancing peace process.

Current efforts to woo Shas, with its six members, as well as three members of Yi’ud, a breakaway from the right-wing Tsomet Party, are therefore part of Labor’s long-term strategy to broaden its base of support.

Labor leaders “are planning for the inevitable moment when they have the opportunity to sign a full peace agreement with parties to the conflict which require major territorial concessions as our part of the compromise,” said Stanley Ringler, head of the party’s America desk.

The Labor Party has committed itself to popular referendums on any agreements calling for territorial concessions on the part of Israel in exchange for peace with its Arab neighbors.

With the current coalition configuration, said Ringler, “we can stay in power for the duration (of the term), but staying in power is not the sole concern. The principal concern is to achieve our goals, which are real peace agreements.”

In the understanding with Shas, Labor pledged to add an amendment to one of Israel’s Basic Laws, which serve as the country’s constitution.

The amendment would guarantee that if the Supreme Court issued a ruling that changed the status quo on religious issues or offended religious values, the Knesset would pass a law circumventing the ruling.

The agreement would also require an absolute majority of 61 Knesset members to approve any new laws changing existing religious legislation.

Shlomo Ben-Izri, the Shas Knesset faction head, said this week the stipulations “to bypass or fight the High Court are necessary because the High Court has been chipping and gnawing away consistently at religious legislation.”

But opponents say any agreement to circumvent Supreme Court rulings would be dangerous.

“This puts (Shas Knesset Member Arych) Deri and Shas above the Supreme Court,” said Zamira Segev, executive director of Hemdat, an organization that protects the freedom of science, culture and religion in Israel.

AFTER PEACE ‘WE NEED A NORMAL COUNTRY’

Segev, who also heads a coalition formed in recent weeks against the deal with Shas, criticized the Labor coalition’s rationale.

“The excuse is that Israel can’t fight on two fronts and that peace is more important” than the protection of religious freedom, she said. “But there is a day after peace and we need a normal country. We can’t sell out our rights to get the peace.”

The agreement means that anyone who believes his or her civil rights have been violated by a religious law cannot find redress at the Supreme Court, said Segev.

She said the deal has the potential to block solutions in cases of agunot (women whose husbands refuse to grant them religious divorces and are barred from remarrying), abortion rights, public transportation on Shabbat and discrimination against non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.

“The status quo on religious matters has always been a political arrangement and part of coalition agreements, and we have always known it hurts the democratic process,” Segev said.

Ringler disputed this characterization. He said the deal reflects a short-term effort by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to reassure Shas its interests will be protected, but he said it would have little practical impact.

“There is a long distance in Israel between a commitment in principle and its realization in a substantive sense,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Labor Party suffered an additional setback this week in the effort to expand its coalition. The Supreme Court ruled that two members of the Yi’ud Party who have been poised to join the coalition could not become part of the Cabinet because they had split off from the Tsomet Party, and cannot serve as Cabinet ministers until a new Knesset is elected.

The two had agreed to join the coalition on the condition they were given Cabinet posts.

Nevertheless, both Yi’ud and Labor said their agreement remains intact and they would explore ways to get around the court ruling.

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