JERUSALEM (Sep. 26)
The head of the American Reform movement has called on Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to resist making critical concessions on religious matters to the fervently Orthodox Shas Party, warning of “severe” consequences if he does.
Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the U.S. Reform movement’s congregational arm, warned Rabin in a recent letter that caving in to Shas demands would bring “lasting damage to Israel-Diaspora relations,” and would dampen American Jewish support for the peace process.
Schindler’s warning comes at a time when Rabin and his Labor Party are negotiating with Shas in a scramble to shore up their Knesset majority in the event of a politically explosive peace deal with Syria.
Israeli public opinion is divided over whether to withdraw from the Golan Heights in return for peace with Syria, and Rabin needs all the Knesset backing he can muster to support any eventual peace deal with Damascus.
Shas, a member of the governing coalition when Rabin assumed office in 1992, defected from the coalition last fall when the party’s political leader, former Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, was indicted on charges that included receiving bribes and violating the public trust.
INCLUDING SHAS GIVES KNESSET JEWISH MAJORITY
In the time since the defection of Shas, Rabin has had to depend on the support of Arab parties within the Knesset to obtain a parliamentary majority in support of his peace moves with the Palestinians.
With the return of Shas, which holds six crucial Knesset votes, Rabin would be able to claim a Jewish majority in the Knesset.
Rabin has been further weakened in recent days by the actions of several Labor Knesset members who are pressing for special Knesset majorities on any votes concerning withdrawal on the Golan.
Shas has said it would return to the coalition only on one condition: It wants a pledge from Labor to pass a law nullifying any Supreme Court ruling that challenges the status quo on religious affairs.
The status quo, in effect, gives the Orthodox establishment a virtual monopoly over all religious affairs in Israel.
Shas leaders say that such counterlegislation is needed in light of recent court decisions which have “chipped away” at the status quo.
These decisions have been issued largely in response to petitions by Israel’s Reform and Conservative movements in their struggle for legitimacy here.
Rabin agreed to Shas’ demand two months ago, sparking opposition within his own party, most notably from his own justice minister, David Libai.
And this week, leaders of Labor’s other coalition partner, the left-wing Meretz bloc, refused to sign on to the deal.
Meanwhile, Shas leaders threatened late last week that they would join the opposition on the Golan question if they do not get what they want.
Rabbi Moshe Maya, a Shas Knesset member, explained the party’s position in an interview on Israel Radio.
“We support the peace process (in the) hope that peace will come to the land (so) that Jews can keep the Torah and mitzvot,” he said.
But, he added, “the moment the status quo is eroded and broken from all sides, there is no sense to peace.”
Rabbi Uri Regev, head of the Israel Religious Action Center of the Reform Movement, blasted the demands of Shas and the acquiescence of Rabin.
“Giving religious coercion constitutional sanction and pre-empting the rulings of the Supreme Court (strike) at the heart of democracy and the character of Israel,” Regev said.
Regev referred to Shas leaders as “extortionists” and “horse traders” on the political scene.
“I cannot accept (their view) of peace as a piece of merchandise that is up for sale,” Regev said.
In his letter, Schindler reminded Rabin of the strong support within the Reform movement for his government’s peace initiatives.
And he warned that the deal with Shas “would diminish enthusiasm” among American Reform Jews for the peace process.
He also noted that “for many American Jews, succumbing to Shas’ demands would be further indication that Israel is unwilling to accept their authenticity as Jews.
“We urge you to refrain from actions which will corrode the character and soul for the Jewish people,” he said in the letter.
No one at the Prime Minister’s Office could be reached for comment on the Schindler letter.
But Rabin has maintained that such a deal is an acceptable price for the peace process, which he views to be of paramount importance.
Negotiations between Rabin and Shas and Meretz are expected to continue.