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Shas Moves Toward Rejoining Coalition, Prompting an Intense Political Debate

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As the fervently Orthodox Shas Party moves closer to rejoining the Labor-led government, a bitter debate has crupted over the political and religious implications of what such a move would mean.

To the delight of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who wants to shore up his governing coalition, the Labor Party executive this week approved a agreement that would bring Shas back into the government.

Shas withdrew from the Labor-led coalition last September when the party’s political leader, Aryeh Deri, was forced from his post as interior minister to face charges relating to bribery and abuse of his office. Deri is currently on trial.

“That’s the first hurdle overcome,” Rabin said Tuesday, smiling with satisfaction after his executive voted 55-20 to support the agreement.

But as Rabin himself implied, the pact still has several hurdles looming before the agreement can go into effect.

The main points of contention over the agreement involve clauses that accede greater authority to the religious establishment.

Opponents of the pact from within Labor appealed to the party’s Central Committee, Labor’s largest and highest policymaking forum, which was scheduled to vote on the agreement late this week.

In addition, three separate petitions were filed to the High Court of Justice on Tuesday — two by secular citizens, claiming the Labor-Shas deal infringed upon their civil rights, and the other by an opposition group within Shas.

Meretz, Labor’s other coalition partner, is also opposed to aspects of the agreement, and as of midweek, had not yet decided how it will vote.

Political observers predict that the High Court will dismiss the three actions, and that Rabin will easily win the Central Committee’s approval.

Tuesday’s vote by the Labor Party executive ratified an agreement with Shas initialed earlier this year.

Among the controversial elements of the agreement is a pledge to pass special legislation to annul any Supreme Court ruling that Shas believes violates the status quo on religious affairs in Israel.

That pledge will be enshrined in a law stipulating that a special Knesset majority will be required to overrule such legislation.

Another clause provides that the “Basic Law: Human Rights” be amended so as not to clash with “religious sensibilities.”

The first clause, which preserves the religious status quo, essentially gives the Orthodox religious and political establishment sole control over religious matters.

Shas, which has six members serving in the Knesset, maintains the new agreement is necessary to counter recent rulings that have threatened this arrangement.

For example, the court ruled earlier this year that Reform and Conservative rabbis could not be barred from serving on local religious councils.

Another court ruling, hailed by advocates of women’s rights, decided that property division in divorce cases must be settled according to the laws of the civil courts and not the rabbinical courts.

SHAS’ RETURN WOULD YIELD A ‘JEWISH MAJORITY’

Shas faction leader Shlomo Benizri welcomed Tuesday’s decision and pledged that his party intends no tightening of religious legislation.

He said the original agreement that brought Shas into the coalition in 1992 was based on the maintenance by all sides of the present “status quo.”

This, he said, was still Shas’ position and commitment.

Proponents of the agreement say that the return of Shas to the coalition will give Rabin a clear majority in the Knesset for his peace initiatives.

After Shas withdrew from the coalition last September, a move denying Rabin a “Jewish majority” in the Knesset, the government had to depend on the support of Arab Israelis within the Knesset.

Opponents of the Labor Party’s coalition deal with Shas say they resent being told that going against the agreement means going against the peace process.

They stress that they support the peace process and recognize the importance of Shas’ return to the coalition to shore up support for the tough deals that lie ahead in the peace process.

However, these opponents strongly object to the price Shas has exacted as a condition for its return, which essentially grants Shas the power to demand the annulment of Supreme Court decisions it finds objectionable.

Opponents contend that such concessions will damage Israeli democracy for generations to come. Shas, they say, could have been brought into the coalition without such radical concessions.

Among the opponents are two ministers from Rabin’s own Labor Party, Justice Minister David Libai and Police Minister Moshe Shahal.

Libai argued Tuesday that the agreement was an improper encroachment upon the powers of the Supreme Court, and imposed an unacceptable limitation upon the Basic Law, which eventually is to become part of a now-evolving written constitution.

‘THE PRICE IS IMPOSSIBLE’

“I am not against Shas (rejoining) the coalition, I am against the agreement because the price is impossible and not necessary,” said Libai.

The minister made the comments at a demonstration by opponents of the agreement in the Rose Garden opposite the Knesset just prior to the Tuesday vote.

“The agreement gives preference to Orthodox religious feelings (over) the feelings of all other citizens, no matter whether Reform or secular,” he said.

Communications Minister Shulamit Aloni of the Meretz bloc, the left-wing partner in the Labor-led coalition, is meanwhile leading the opposition to the agreement coming from within her party.

Stressing that Meretz wants to see the Labor-Meretz-Shas coalition restored in the interests of the peace process, Aloni said Tuesday that Meretz would not back out of the coalition at this stage.

But she warned there would be a crisis when and if Shas insisted on the agreed-upon legislation being passed.

Miriam Isserow, attorney and advocacy coordinator for the Israel Women’s Network, said the deal will mean that legal advances in women’s rights that have been in the works for years can suddenly be undone at the discretion of Shas.

Isserow criticized Rabin for the deal, saying, “He doesn’t care about democracy.”

Naomi Chazan, a Meretz Knesset member, also joined Tuesday’s demonstrators.

“Peace is not only an objective, it’s also a means for the creation of a just and enlightened society in Israel,” she said. “If, on the road to peace, we handicap the possibility of creating a more fully democratic and just society, we’ve done very little.”

Knesset opponents within Meretz and Labor vow that even if the Labor Party Central Committee ratifies the deal later this week, they will continue to wage the war and fight each piece of legislation Shas proposes.

There is also a possibility the Supreme Court will rule on whether the agreement itself has legal standing.

There will be no Daily News Bulletin published on Monday, Oct. 10, due to the Columbus Day holiday

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