News Analysis: Barak is Moving Slowly Toward Accepting Shas into His Coalition

Don’t count the Shas Party out of the next Israeli government yet.

Israeli Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak has now spent three, often frustrating, weeks attempting to form a government — a process filled as much with public posturing as with anything more substantive.

In part as a result of this frustration, some of Barak’s aides are suggesting forming a minority government, which would mean that he would have fewer than 60 of the Knesset’s 120 members represented in his coalition.

Suggesting that Barak worry about expanding his government later, many of these aides have become fed up with the stream of threats and often irreconcilable demands coming from Barak’s potential coalition partners.

But seasoned observers are detecting a slow but perceptible shift on the part of Barak away from the idea of a minority government and toward the inclusion of the controversial Shas Party.

Shas’ 17 Knesset seats make it, like Barak himself, a major victor in the May 17 elections.

The inclusion of the fervently Orthodox Shas in a Barak Cabinet, however, faces the vehement opposition of two secular parties, Meretz, with 10 seats, and Shinui, with six.

The minority scenario is a direct product of the now widely regretted electoral system that was introduced in the 1996 elections and that enables Israelis to cast one ballot for prime minister and a separate vote for the Knesset.

This system resulted in a legislature more splintered than ever before: When the 15th Knesset was sworn in Monday, there were a record 15 parties represented.

As an argument in favor of the minority government, Barak reasons that even if his coalition commands less than 60 seats in the 120-member Knesset, he will face no real danger.

This is because most Knesset members — including many of those who will not be part of the coalition — will be hesitant to vote against the new government since that would result, under the new electoral system, in the dissolution of the Knesset and the calling of new elections.

Barak’s reasoning is that most legislators will not want to send themselves home so soon after being elected.

Under the previous electoral system, if a government fell, another might be formed under another prime minister without the Knesset itself dissolving.

Barak is understood to believe that the precedent set by outgoing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was widely unpopular and yet survived well into his third year, proves that the new system awards a great degree of parliamentary invulnerability to the prime minister.

In the minority scenario, Barak’s One Israel bloc (26 seats) would join with Meretz and Shinui (16), the Center Party (6), Yisrael Ba’Aliyah (6) and One Nation (2) to create a left-liberal, non-Orthodox coalition of 56 seats.

Barak himself, though, is uncomfortable with the thought that his campaign pledges to unify and heal the breaches in Israeli society would fail to translate into a broad-based coalition with different and even divergent trends represented within it.

Moreover, he does not want a government without a religious component, given the recent intensification of religious-secular strife.

He also believes that progress toward peace, both with Syria and the Palestinians, needs to be founded on a broad consensus — even though any accords he reaches would, as he has pledged, be submitted for a national referendum.

It was with the goal of forming a broad-based coalition that the premier-elect embarked on what his aides insist was a sincere and genuine attempt at dialogue with the Likud Party.

Barak held a lengthy private meeting last week with Likud’s acting chairman, outgoing Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon, and there have been several working sessions between representatives of the two parties.

By the same token, though, the uncompromising positions put forward by Likud, and especially by Sharon, appear to have convinced Barak that a partnership with Likud is not realistic.

Some One Israel insiders say that Likud’s hard-line stance on peace policy issues during coalition negotiations is linked to the party’s election in early September of a new leader to replace Netanyahu, who resigned the post immediately after the May elections.

On Tuesday, Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert formally threw his hat into the ring, joining the candidacies of Sharon and outgoing Finance Minister Meir Sheetrit.

The Likud’s apparent unavailability for the coalition has pleased those in the Barak camp who have argued ever since election day that One Israel’s best option, both in terms of the peace process and in terms of domestic reconciliation, is to take in Shas.

This recommendation, however, is conditional on the departure of Aryeh Deri as Shas leader.

Deri was convicted in March of taking bribes and subsequently sentenced to four years in jail. His case is now awaiting appeal in the Supreme Court.

Deri has formally resigned from the Knesset, but he has not given up his power as party chairman.

Shas officials, among them the party’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, are signaling to Barak that they are prepared to ditch Deri in return for a coalition agreement.

The snag, however, is that Shinui, and subsequently Meretz, have publicly pledged not to join a government that also includes Shas — even if Deri is ousted.

Shas “represents values that are inimical to the rule of law,” Shinui leader Yosef “Tommy” Lapid insisted Tuesday.

Lapid poured scorn on an idea floated this week by Meretz leader Yossi Sarid under which Shas would become part of the coalition in place of Meretz and Shinui, both of which would stay out of the government but support its policies in the Knesset.

Under this scenario, the United Torah Judaism bloc (5) and possibly the National Religious Party (5) might join, too, giving Barak a comfortable Knesset majority.

But Lapid said Tuesday this seemed “completely illogical” to him.

He reiterated his party’s refusal to sit alongside Shas at the Cabinet table, adding that Sarid’s proposal would only further strengthen Shas and weaken the secularist forces.

Lapid seemed to be hinting that Meretz should swallow its pride and agree to a Shas presence in the coalition — though his own party would not do so, preferring to retain its secular stance.

This is also the privately held position of some in Meretz, who feel that Sarid has painted their party into an awkward corner that needlessly prevents Barak from setting up a workable coalition of parties committed to the peace process.

Like Yosef of Shas, these Meretz officials recall with some nostalgia the Labor-Meretz-Shas coalition of 1992, under the late Yitzhak Rabin, which was responsible for the Oslo accords.

That coalition required all partners to set aside some of their domestic agendas in favor of the peace process.

This, they say, is the same requirement now, if the Oslo accords are finally to be brought to a successful conclusion.

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