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Barak forges new government, will present partners next week

JERUSALEM, June 30 (JTA) — Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak has forged a coalition government that includes at least four parties in addition to his One Israel bloc. As required under law, Barak sent a letter Wednesday informing the acting speaker of the Knesset, former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, that he had formed his government, which he will present next week, according to Barak spokeswoman Merav Parsi Tzadok. He sent the letter hours after reaching agreement with the fervently Orthodox Shas Party, giving him at least 59 of the 120 Knesset seats. As part of that agreement, Shas gets four ministries: Health, Infrastructure, Labor and Religious Affairs. Shas, which increased its Knesset representation to 17 seats from 10 in the outgoing legislature, takes a relatively dovish stance on ceding land for peace. Barak is also expected to sign agreements this week with the Center and One Nation parties. Meretz, which has already signed a coalition agreement, will decide in the coming days whether it wants to remain in a government that also includes Shas. If Meretz decides to remain, Barak will have a 77-seat majority. Along with Shas, Barak has already signed up Yisrael Ba’Aliyah, the National Religious Party and the United Torah Judaism bloc. With UTJ, Shas and the NRP in the coalition, it appears unlikely that the Knesset will enact legislation instituting pluralism in the administration of marriage and divorce. Though Barak had initially said he hoped to form a government that also includes the Likud Party, coalition talks with acting Likud leader Ariel Sharon broke down Monday. That meeting lasted only several minutes. “I don’t see a way for the Likud to join the government,” Sharon told reporters Monday. “We will fight this government from the opposition.” The Likud had sought an equal voice in deciding policy, particularly on the political process. Sharon, the outgoing foreign minister, cited differences with Barak regarding the future of the Golan Heights, which Syria demands in exchange for peace with Israel, and Jewish housing construction in predominantly Arab eastern Jerusalem. Negotiating teams began discussing a coalition package for Shas after the fervently Orthodox party met Barak’s key demands to oust its corruption-tainted leader, Aryeh Deri, and forgo its demand for control of the interior ministry. Meretz, a champion of secular rights, had initially said it would refuse to participate in a government with Shas, citing Deri’s bribery and fraud conviction. But Shas’ willingness to give up control of the Interior Ministry, which it has held for 15 years, will likely persuade Meretz to remain in Barak’s coalition. In addition to the ministries going to Shas, a number of government portfolios have been parceled out as the result of agreements worked out in the past several days: * Housing Ministry — National Religious Party. This will help the NRP advance its interests in developing Jewish settlements, but could prove to be a source of tension with dovish parties within the coalition. It may also present difficulties in peace negotiations with the Palestinians, who have demanded an end to Jewish settlement activity. * Interior Ministry — Yisrael Ba’Aliyah. The Russian immigrants party built its campaign around the demand to wrest control of the ministry from Shas, which Yisrael Ba’Aliyah charged was blocking the entry of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. * Immigrant Absorption — Yisrael Ba’Aliyah will continue to control this ministry.

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